Alpha Foundry Stacks Up
Businesses don’t have to be large to be innovative—in fact for many companies, being small means being nimble, flexible, and resourceful. AFS Corporate Member Alpha Foundry’s got 25 employees, its own unique molding process, and ownership with a bent for engineering and invention—a true recipe for success that’s kept the small business in Wright City, Missouri, going for more than 100 years.
The core of Alpha Foundry’s niche is its namesake shell molding process invented and patented by Robert Barron several decades ago. The unique coremaking and molding technique significantly reduced time and material cost for shell molding while still offering dimensional and mechanical properties that are superior to green sand. The innovation carved out a niche for Alpha Foundry that the company still enjoys, but it also reflects the Barron family’s perspective on running the business.
“We have our alpha process, but I would characterize us even more as having an open-minded approach to things,” said Ryan Barron, the company’s president and grandson of Robert Barron. “We’ve always been willing to try things that are unconventional from a foundry standpoint.”
From a three-machine cell for permanent mold casting, to 3D printing, to adding a melting and pouring line for iron, Alpha Foundry strategically and prudently adapts to meet customer needs and expand its market.
“Our customers have told us they appreciate that about us,” Ryan Barron said. “I think where we are at in manufacturing, it’s important to keep competitive and technologically advanced.”
Walking through the mold staging area of Alpha Foundry feels like walking past towers of neat encyclopedias Eventually these stacked, book-ended shell molds will be clamped and turned on their sides for pouring in a sequence—similar to how vertically-parted green sand molds are filled. Each mold is created via Robert Barron’s invention—a two-chamber shellmaking process that incorporates the use of two different sand materials to achieve shell mold properties at reduced cost and time.
Robert Barron didn’t set out to create his own molding method but like a true engineer, he became curious about the result of one mistake, which inspired him to explore further.
“We were a green sand foundry making shell cores,” Ryan Barron said. “My grandpa was running a shell core machine on a Saturday by himself. He ran to get the phone and was on it for a long time and forgot he had blown a core. When he took it out, it was a black shell on the outside with a yellow shell on the inside, and that sparked his imagination.”
Robert Barron wanted to find out if there could be an advantage to making shell molds with an exterior surface different than the interior—particularly because in the shell molding process, the material is expensive and the molds take time to bake and harden.
After patenting the alpha method and partnering with a foundry equipment manufacturer to create a machine to bring his idea to fruition, Robert Barron thought other foundries might incorporate his process—but it never caught on. His son Emerson, who acquired the business in 1982, never lost faith in the idea.
“Dad decided to start playing around with the alpha process more in our foundry,” Ryan Barron said. “He quoted and ran the first alpha process job, and the customer was really happy with it. So, interest and sales grew. Nobody else was doing it; the production setup here is unique.”
Eventually, Emerson Barron transitioned the foundry from a mostly green sand facility pouring brass and bronze alloys to an aluminum foundry using the alpha process.
Alpha Foundry markets its method as an answer to a range of casting requirements that “lies somewhere between the process advantages of sand, investment, permanent mold, and diecasting.” For customers seeking necessary dimensions or tolerances while balancing cost of tooling and production for a specific volume, the alpha process can fill that niche.
Like traditional shell molding, the alpha process uses a resin-coated sand in one magazine of its core and mold blowing equipment. The sand becomes very hard and rigid after baking. Instead of making the solid mold all in this resin-coated sand, however, it’s only used for the outer, metal-facing layer of the core and mold. The second magazine in the equipment is used to backfill the rest of the mold with coarse silica sand. After casting, at shakeout, the backing sand collapses and drains through screens to be recycled and used again.
According to Alpha Foundry, its shell process method is 30%-50% faster with 30%-50% less molding material.
Being the Customer’s Solution
Alpha Foundry’s process and capabilities cater to the electrical and fuel production markets—for example, a fuel nozzle used to fill up gas tanks. As Ryan Barron put it, it’s commodity-type work for clients who need higher quality. The shell sand provides the superior surface finish needed for details like perfectly legible designation markings on the side.
The metalcaster tackles jobs in a range of quantities from 50 to 5,000, and most of the jobs are in aluminum, although it does some ZA-12 and iron.
“We are picky with the work we are bringing in right now because we don’t have a lot of extra capacity,” Ryan Barron said.
Future capacity expansion could be in the works when the timing—and manpower—is right.
“We have plenty of land, and we added a small addition four years ago to bring in some iron melting,” he said. “That expansion is meant to be a bridge to another building that would copy what we have now. We have been hesitant to finish that up because it’s an expensive time to build right now.”
Beyond its shell molding line, Alpha Foundry also operates a three-unit semi-permanent molding cell. It’s a small cell with equipment specifically designed and built for a customer that approached the foundry with a challenge.
“Our customer was trying to win a job back from China and they came to us to quote,” Ryan Barron said. “We couldn’t hit their cost target in the alpha process, and we told them it would probably have to be in permanent mold. They asked if we could do it and at first the answer was ‘no,’ but then we started figuring out how we could.”
The part itself is fairly simple, Barron said, but it has to be pressure tight. After a few months of ironing out the wrinkles, the job in the gravity-poured permanent mold cell has been running smoothly. Scrap rate at both the foundry and the customer is under 2%.
3D Printing and Beyond
Ryan Barron did not originally picture himself taking up the mantle at Alpha Foundry. With a passion for motor sports, he had envisioned himself becoming involved in that arena as an engineer in some way. As he figured out the next steps to enter that field, he worked with his dad (Emerson) at the family business.
“I started enjoying the work of running my own business,” Barron said. So, he committed to shaping and leading Alpha Foundry for the future. When he first saw 3D sand printing, he knew he wanted to see how it could fit in with his business—when the business case allowed.
“I just wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s such a great opportunity and adds so much to what we can do in metalcasting.”
An opportunity to enter 3D printing came with one of Alpha Foundry’s largest customers who was also sourcing some jobs from another foundry. When Barron got wind the other casting source was shutting down, his aim was to win that work—including a complex nozzle job that was beyond the scope of Alpha Foundry’s existing capabilities.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘what if we just 3D printed the core in one piece and put that printed core in our normal production shell mold?’” Barron said. “I asked for the CAD file for the part and contracted ExOne to print the core and mold. We made a casting out of that, and I took it to the customer. They were flabbergasted how we made it without tooling—I talked about how I wanted to produce the part that way and they were all over it.”
With the job won, Alpha Foundry purchased and installed a 3D printing system from Viridis—an early precursor to today’s S-Max Flex from ExOne.
“The one job was enough to justify the machine, but it doesn’t take up all the capacity of the machine,” Barron said. “We like the idea of having that ability to make complex printed cores with a shell mold—it produces a nice-looking part with internal complexity.”
The Viridis 3D printing system was a theoretically cost-effective way to enter the 3D printing market, but when Alpha Foundry purchased it more than three years ago, a lot of time went into troubleshooting. As a small foundry user, Barron provided feedback to Viridis, then Desktop Metal when it acquired Viridis, and eventually ExOne, which merged with Desktop Metal in 2021. This summer, Alpha Foundry installed a brand new and improved 3D printing system—the S-Max Flex, which ExOne debuted at CastExpo 2022.
The 3D printer is another reason Alpha Foundry added iron melting—it opens up more opportunities to fill the machine’s extra operating time, which is one area of the foundry that doesn’t rely on manpower to reach full capacity.
Next up, Barron is looking into ways to incorporate robotics and automation, and direct metal printing has caught his interest, as well. For this small business in the metalcasting industry, the tinkering and innovating keeps everything running.