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A Student’s Story: My Winding Path to the Foundry

Steve Thornton

My path into the foundry industry is a long and winding road but, thankfully, along the path I have had several influencing people and factors that helped me reach graduation from Cal Poly Pomona with a manufacturing engineering degree.

My journey into manufacturing engineering began at a young age. I was raised in several group homes in southern California until I was seven years old when I was adopted. Even as a child, I was noted as being curious; I was always taking things apart. I loved figuring out how things worked, and I would try to put them back together, sometimes unsuccessfully.

In 2008, I was able to get into Cal Poly Pomona right after high school. I was not a good student and had to drop out due to financial reasons. My parents’ neighbor was a production manager at an extrusion shop where I spent the next six-and-a-half years. Because of this position, I started saving money with the goal of returning to finish my undergrad studies.

In 2018, I was able to return to Cal Poly Pomona. Two courses included in the curriculum for manufacturing engineering majors are Manufacturing Processes–Materials and Manufacturing Processes. In these courses, I was exposed to the concepts of material sciences and metalcasting. I think learning about the processes and problems of casting metal, as compared to what I knew about extrusion, is what fascinated me.  

Unfortunately, in July 2020, I lost my job at the extrusion shop and had a difficult time finding work that could fit around my school schedule—and during the pandemic. After burning through my savings, I became homeless. I was living in my truck or sleeping on couches as I could. I was still able to go to school with loans, thankfully, so I didn’t need to drop out again, but times were tough.
My advisor and professor, Dr. Victor Okhuysen (FEF Key Professor), helped me find an internship at Consolidated Precision Products in Pomona, a green sand casting facility that specializes in aluminum and magnesium. Each professor has so many students, yet they have access to very limited job opportunities; I believe it is important for students to stand out in some way. I tried to make sure that I was known or known about in my department. Both Dr. Okhuysen and Dr. Dika Handayani (another professor) have been very supportive, not only notifying and nominating me for various scholarships*, but for recommending me for this internship. I began working in January 2021. I was still homeless for the first month of the internship, so I would clock out for my shift, be off-site for a few hours, then park in the parking lot of the foundry to sleep.

I enjoy metalcasting and its complexity. At the extrusion shop, we had a few SMEs that had worked there for decades; when problems arose, they would have procedures in place to solve these problems. This is different than at the foundry where I worked. The metalcasting process had many potentially overlapping sources of defects: sand fine grades, binder type and quality, ambient temperature, temperature of the pour pot, and metallurgical composition of the metal in the pot. There was so much to learn in the short time that I was at the foundry. This made work exciting and challenging; the engineers and interns had to sit and think of solutions, not just enact pre-proven strategies.

Now that I’ve finished my undergrad work, I’m contemplating two paths going forward: take the FE/PE exams or enter a master’s program.

Two goals that I want to work toward are buying a house for my mother and niece and running my own shop. I would like a metalworking area (mill, lathe, and foundry) and a woodworking area (saws, lathes, etc.) I love the idea of coming home smelling like coolant and sawdust or just setting up a cot in my shop.

But I see myself enjoying many types of work. I love talking and interacting with people, and I tend to take leadership roles when I can. So, I could see being a manager and/or eventually a chief position. My favorite classes, however, have always been the technical ones. I fell in love with the material sciences from the Manufacturing Processes – Materials course, and because of this course I started planning on a metallurgical or material science master’s degree.

I look forward to meeting many of you as I continue my journey in the metalcasting industry!

*Thanks to the generosity of companies and individuals, FEF is able to provide scholarship funding to our certified and affiliated schools; each year, 225-250 students receive a scholarship through FEF.