Planning a New Mold Handling Department? Start Your To-Do List Here

Kim Phelan

High demand for castings is driving foundries large and small to examine how to increase capacity, and expansion in mold handling is on the table for many owners. Of course, not much in a foundry is an island unto itself, and mold handling is one of numerous interconnected systems comprising the full metalcasting process. To understand the spectrum of considerations for expanding or clean-sheet designing a mold handling department, Modern Casting reached out to mold handling equipment suppliers for their unique perspectives.

A good deal of information must be collected long before engineers are brought into the conversation. For instance, what is the projected production rate/molds per hour? Cooling times for various casting metals and weights must also be calculated, and sand supply, muller, and silos must be thought through to help the design company you work with provide a complete solution that meets all your expectations, said Jerry Senk, president of Equipment Manufacturers International (EMI). Establish the required mold sizes, too, adds Wil Tinker, president of Tinker Omega Sinto. All these factors combined will lead to decisions about the mixer capacity, resin system, and type of molding system (carousel or linear) required, he said. 

Detailed, long-range planning will ensure the foundry’s goals are met, and meticulous oversight from one skilled project manager is highly recommended. Senk advises working with an experienced design partner that has created the type of mold handling spaces you want, regardless of being a retrofit or a greenfield design. Whether it’s a local engineering firm, a large national corporation, or the knowledgeable layout experts at an AFS member equipment manufacturer, close familiarity with the metalcasting industry and a track record of listening to the foundry client should be non-negotiables at the onset. 

“It comes down to listening to your customer, really listening and understanding, and trying not to put your bias up front and what you think they want or need,” said Senk, “especially when you’re integrating equipment from different suppliers. We want to make sure we give them what they want. And by listening, we can help them come up with a solution they’re comfortable with.”

Time will be a big planning consideration, too. Manufacturers can be backlogged 16 months on the equipment you may want, so plan far in advance, and plan ahead for the downtime of installation, as well, Senk says, which is easily a few months at least. Stocking up on casting inventories will help. 

The Role of Industry 4.0

With skilled labor shortages still prevalent everywhere, mold handling’s biggest trend is automation, which has the added benefit of improved accuracy and repeatability. 

“These systems, now more than ever, leverage technologies that help address labor and cost pressures in addition to providing new ways to maintain reliable uptime and service the equipment,” said Michael Halsband, president and CEO of Roberts Sinto Corp./Roberts Sinto De Mexico.

He added that the latest technologies evolve largely around Industry 4.0 products and services, which capture equipment performance and process data and alert operators to variations in the process. This feedback allows for immediate responses to quality and machine issues, decreasing unwanted downtime, maintenance costs, and scrap. As an example, Sinto Smart Foundry alerts operators when process and performance thresholds are crossed. Foundries have the option to manage this system on their own or take advantage of remote monitoring as a service by Sinto service technicians and foundry experts. They provide equipment health status reports and make recommendations for upcoming maintenance and needed spare parts. Maintenance tasks are more and more based on data as opposed to repetitive schedules. Maintenance cost, operating efficiency, production planning and quality can all be improved with this technology.

In summary, new industry 4.0 foundry technologies eliminate waste and promote a zero-defect approach, Halsband continued.

“Near net shape solutions, energy efficiency, increased recycling, and waste reduction, as well as more automated and nearly un-manned systems all describe the foundry of the future,” he said. “Most of these technical advances and efforts positively affect the bottom line.”

In addition to Sinto’s Industry 4.0 analytics products, a new bentonite recovery system to reclaim bentonite and reduce landfill expenses as well as traceability technology are in the works, while a faster mold machine (FCMX 200 mph) has recently been introduced in North America. 

Halsband offered this advice: “Foundries should carefully analyze their short-term and long-term automation, tooling, software, and service needs and identify scalable solutions. Engage a capable company to consult and engineer solutions before locking them in. Pick the supplier that can tailor and grow solutions aligned with objectives and budgets. Develop strategies for equipment, implementation, operations, training, and effective after-sales services.” 

Automation: A Major Trend

Jack Palmer, president of Palmer Manufacturing, observes the metalcasting industry is truly at a defining time. 

“The number of automation advancements to hit our production floor makes it hard to know what to look at first. Advancements in 3D printing, sensor technologies, vision inspection, robotic work-cells, enterprise-wide software to record and analyze data, and machines talking to machines have all in one way or another impacted the foundry floor with one goal in mind—to make more molds with less labor.

“With so many options, it’s hard to know where to begin,” he added. “We suggest starting, like any other material handling project, by first identifying in order of priority your absolute requirements followed by your secondary wants. While many foundries are looking to increase mold production, certainly reducing labor is also typically a key priority—especially given our current labor shortage. Other foundries, especially jobbing foundries, tend to also look for flexible systems for handling different part sizes and volumes.”

He also advises foundries to look to the future. “While predicting the future is not easy, overall, we see production moving to more complex and larger castings,” he said.

In nobake production, carousel or conveyor-based molding systems are by far the most popular, according to Palmer. However, this is essentially the same technology that was deployed when nobake sand molding became mainstream in the 1960s. In carousel molding, the rollover does the heavy lifting to handle and move molds. While an important fixture in most foundries, rollovers are comparatively slow, take up a lot of floor space, and are very expensive. And while carousel and conveyor-based systems are safe, proven, and successful, newer technologies are available that are better designed to meet today’s high production, labor-saving, and up time requirements.

“The new Palmer MM-series of mold making has increased the standard nobake mold making system from an industry average of 15 molds per hour, up to 40 molds per hour (80 mold halves per hour)—without an expensive rollover,” said Palmer. “Because the pattern is inverted automatically and drawn onto a precision hydraulic draw table or scissors lift, a rollover isn’t necessary and any amount of daylight is available at no additional expense.

“Additionally, only 1-2 operators are needed for a four-station flip molding machine, depending on level of mold prep needed. Pattern changes for both the MM systems are very fast, making single molds of a pattern very efficient. Regarding tooling flexibility, the two MM-Series systems offers significant advantages:

  • Universal molding machine (UMM) can use any tooling, including green sand matchplates as well as cope/drag boxes. 
  • Flip molding machine (FMM) uses cope/drag tooling only.

“Perhaps the only disadvantage is that this new system looks entirely different,” Palmer said. “Doing things differently has never exactly been a foundry motto. We often say that change is so easy to avoid—which is precisely what makes it so hard. 

“The one good thing that has come out of our current labor shortages is that foundries are required to look at doing things differently, as the days of simply adding more operators is no longer a viable solution.

“Now is the time to look at managing the mold making and handling process differently—it could surprise you with much higher production rates, at significantly less cost,” he said.

Automation: Not Just for Big Foundries Anymore  

The North American nobake casting industry has been moving toward automated molding systems for the last 25 years, and for most of that time, adoption was predominantly by larger, higher volume foundries, according to Tinker. But over the last five years, especially post-COVID, the move toward automation has grown in smaller- and medium-sized foundries, driven by the need for better efficiency and quality and to compensate for a reduced workforce.

Tinker said automation can range from converting a manual conveyor system to one with powered rollers and a PLC control. They can include an RFID recipe control on the mixer, a rollover/draw machine, in-line flow coat, and even an auto-close machine. Each of these additions will reduce the manhours per mold and reduce the variables in the molding process.

“When budgeting for a new system, the foundry should analyze what is their largest cause of variables in their process and what function is the largest draw of manpower,” said Tinker. “This information will allow prioritization of the optional machines listed above. Each additional machine will be an economic justification based on labor savings, operator safety, or gains in productivity.”

While some large firms may pull the trigger on a complete installation all at once, not everyone is prepared to write one massive check to cover the full overhaul of both a mold handling system and all the adjacent, related equipment for a complete renovation. Smaller and medium foundries often opt to automate in phases, making their entry into automation a little easier on the pocketbook.   

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