Big Opportunities in a Small-Town Foundry

Shannon Wetzel

Located in a small Iowa town of about 7,800 people, Seneca Foundry has been operating for over 100 years by members of the McCollough family. Through four generations, the Webster City foundry has been an unassuming piece of the local economy—quietly serving customers and providing employment to a few dozen people.

“We wanted it to be a good, family place to work,” said Kirk McCollough, who represents the latest generation to run the foundry. “It was not our intention to be big but to be a friendly, local place to work, with a variety of customers from many industries.”

As McCollough prepares for impending retirement, however, Seneca Foundry has gone through a transitioning phase—ushering in new leadership, investing in automation, and introducing itself to the community-at-large that it’s called “home” for over a century.

In the last four years, under the leadership of new president, Lori Mason, Seneca Foundry has doubled its sales while increasing personnel by 15% to 55. The foundry has purchased automated grinding equipment, a 3D printer, and an automated mold handling system, and opened its doors for tours to schools, legislators, and neighbors. 

But the McCollough legacy of business standards lives on.

“We’ve made several significant investments into more automation, and really the main reason was to improve the work environment and make the job easier for our employees,” Mason said. “I can’t say enough about Kirk and his mentorship. He always challenged me to think differently and that we don’t always have to do something the way other foundries may be doing it.”

Leadership Transition

Mason is the first nonfamily person to run Seneca Foundry, but she’s been learning the ins and outs of the business for 18 years. Shortly after college, Mason moved to her husband’s hometown of Webster City, where he planned to farm with his family. Mason, meanwhile, found a bookkeeping job at the local foundry.

“I always found the business fascinating,” Mason said. “And my personality is that I always want to do more and learn more—be involved more. In a small company like Seneca Foundry, you get plenty of opportunity to do that. As opportunities arose over the years, I took advantage and tried to get involved in as much as I could.”

After working as a bookkeeper, Mason was promoted to director of finance, then chief operating officer before becoming president in 2019. McCollough is now the chairman of the board. 

McCollough recalls a situation a few years ago where the foundry was bogged down by a new business venture that wasn’t panning out as hoped. “I asked Lori, ‘Want to figure out what to do with this?’ And she did,” he said. “Any project I would give her, she performed. So, when it was time to name the next president, I knew she would figure out the rest of it.”

Automation and a Better Work Environment

Most of Seneca Foundry’s employees live within 20 miles of Webster City, and although it’s a vibrant town, the area’s small population means finding and retaining a skilled workforce can be a challenge. In the last five years, the team at Seneca Foundry has sought ways to improve efficiencies and make the existing jobs on the shopfloor safer and less labor intensive.

Most recently, it installed an automated mold handling line. Mason, who visits the shop floor frequently and continues to do the production scheduling, knew the foundry’s previous way of getting molds to pouring and shakeout was an area ripe for improvement. 

“We were manually moving our molds from the machine to the deck, literally using our feet to push the racks up to where we were manually setting up for pouring, and then manually using our feet to push the molds into shakeout,” she said. “This was the largest investment the company has made in decades, but once we started putting numbers to it and examined how it would make the environment better for the employees, it wasn’t hard to justify the investment.”

After quoting from several vendors, the leadership team at Seneca Foundry opted to go with a Hunter automated HLH linear line because it fit the foundry’s footprint and needs the best. 

“We needed something that was going to fit into the space that we had because we weren’t going to move the furnaces, and we weren’t going to move the molding machine,” Mason said. “Improving this area was a complete gamechanger for us. We knew it was going to increase our capacity and make us more efficient, but it has surpassed my expectations.”

The molding area (Seneca Foundry makes molds on two Hunter automated lines) is near the charging, melting, and pouring area in a single room. Proximity was important when employees had to physically move the molds under their own power. But it created a constraint when fitting an automated system into the space.

The final L-shaped design incorporates a turntable for the molds coming off the conveyor from the molding machine. The molds are turned 90 degrees before moving into the pouring line. The automated system sets the weights and jackets once the molds are in the pouring line, which stay on the molds after pouring as they travel through a switchback to head to the other end of the system. Then the molds are picked up automatically and pushed into a cooling car. Seneca Foundry has the option of setting a shorter or longer cooling time depending on how many molds are put in the car. After cooling, the molds are automatically pushed onto a conveyor to shakeout.

“Since the day we started with the automated mold handling, it’s been running like clockwork,” Mason said. “Our maintenance team really took ownership of the system. Installation took six weeks.”

Beyond improving employee safety and work environment, the new system has made a substantial difference in the foundry’s capacity.

“Our old system constrained our ability to make castings. We could only have eight molds across in a line for pouring, so for each ladle, it was very difficult to do more than eight molds,” Mason said. “With this new system, we can do 14, 16 molds, with no problems at all off this one line.”

Seneca Foundry also saw its quality improve. 

“The molders can be more focused on making a quality mold,” Mason said. “Before, they were getting so worn out with the physical side of moving the molds. So, we were able to redirect their attention and focus back on making good molds.”

Another area of focus has been the grinding area, which until three years ago, was all performed manually. In 2019, Seneca Foundry installed its first Barinder automated grinder, and a second one was installed in May 2023. A third is planned for the near future.

“For me, the safety aspects of the automated grinding are what it’s all about,” Mason said. “You don’t have the thumbs and fingers near a snag grinder. Plus, it’s freeing up employees to do additional cross training and learn other areas of the foundry.”

Currently, about 20% of part numbers go through the automated grinders (Seneca Foundry has 1,400 active part numbers). The rest are still done manually, although Seneca is continually transitioning jobs to the Barinders. Two people on staff are trained to program the grinders—the foundry’s process engineer as well as the cleaning room supervisor. 

As a jobbing shop, Seneca Foundry makes some parts with quantities as low as 20 pieces a year, so it is selective on which parts will give the most return on investment for automated grinding. But it isn’t always a volume decision, Mason said. 

“We don’t do a lot of them, but if we have a part that’s larger in size and it’s really not safe to manually grind—even though that one doesn’t have the volume, it goes to the Barinder for safety reasons,” she said.

Team Effort

When it’s time to make a big decision for the foundry, Mason leans on the leadership team to examine the facets of an issue and come to a conclusion that best meets the business’s needs. The leadership team consists of Mason, Stephanie Kruger, controller, and Jeff Vorhies, sales engineer.

“We will also bring in supervisors and managers from different areas,” Mason said. “So, we have about 10 people total who provide input on projects.”

For the past eight years, Seneca Foundry has been using an entrepreneurial operating system called Traction to manage the business, using scorecards for key metrics. 

“We review a to-do list as a team every single week and create goals both short-term and long-term,” Mason said. “Our weekly meeting is an opportunity to bring up ideas, issues that need to be solved, as well as potential opportunities. We’ll put things on our to-do list and follow up the next week. That’s how we keep things moving forward and organized.”

The meetings are a way for the team to maintain accountability to each other and the business, Mason said, which is difficult in a small company where everyone has a lot of daily responsibilities. 

Mason said she also spends a lot of time on the shopfloor, and she makes a point of listening to the issues that employees bring up to her.

“Every employee can tell you, when making decisions for the business, I go by safety, quality, and then production,” she said. “No matter what it is we’re doing, we always look at the safety aspects then quality; production will kind of just follow.”

Looking Ahead  

With sales doubled in five years, the team at Seneca Foundry has been busy handling the influx of new part numbers. A 3D printer purchased in January 2022 has helped with the additional patternmaking requirements, plus it will ease the transition when the current pattern benchworker at Seneca retires soon.

“I’m old school, so I wasn’t sold on it at first,” said sales engineer Vorhies, who has become the in-house 3D printing expert. “But it allows me to create everything in Solidworks and then print it like I want it. It eliminates guesswork.”

The printer is mostly used to make gating and risering for the patterns, and it’s been put to good use as the foundry accommodates the transfer and new tooling that has been arriving at a steady pace. 

“Since October, we’ve had so many new part numbers—I’ve never seen this much influx of new work,” Vorhies said. 

As sales continue to hold strong and capacity has increased, Mason said the team will continue to reinvest in the foundry to improve efficiencies and make the foundry an inviting place to work—keeping it a family-friendly business that the McColloughs strived for the last 100 years. 

“We may be just this small foundry in Iowa,” Mason said. “But we have a lot of really big things going on. And we have so much opportunity ahead of us to grow and continue to be the best for our employees and our customers.”   

Click here to view this article in the digital edition of August 2023 Modern Casting.