Kimura Foundry Creates Its Niche
In 2009, during the development stage of a particularly complex casting, Dr. Yoya Fukuda—on the verge of giving up—began to consider 3D printed sand. “The foundry business is very old, and throughout its history a lot of it is people just thinking about how to make the mold,” he said. “The last 100, 200 years, there have been so many new processes developed, but everything depends on how you mold. I had heard about 3D printing the mold, and I thought, this may be a good chance.”
At that time, Fukuda was an engineer for Japan-based Kimura Foundry Co., which then operated three foundries producing castings using the full mold process (a combination of sand and lost foam casting). This first foray into 3D printing led to a brand-new direction for Kimura and opened the door for the company to become international.
And in 2016, it brought Fukuda to Indiana to lead the launch of Kimura Foundry America (KFA) based on the unique 3D printing business model he developed in Japan. At the Shelbyville, Indiana, facility, the castings produced are all made via 3D printed molds using a proprietary sand, which is reclaimed in a complete loop. And while the molding equipment consists of three ExOne printers instead of the more typical matchplate lines, jolt/squeeze machines, or rollover machines, the foundry’s other operations—melting department, pouring, shakeout, and finishing—are much more conventional.
KFA’s unique 3D sand printing system earned it the AFS Plant Engineering Award in 2021 for “seamlessly combining three cutting edge technologies—3D sand printing, artificial sand, and sand reclamation.” Individually, these technologies have existed for some time, but KFA’s innovation is the combination of all three to make quality parts while lowering operating costs and environmental impacts.
An Idea Is Born
Kimura Foundry Co. was started in 1927 and is a well-known Japanese supplier of automotive press dies and machine tool castings. It holds nearly 50% of the automotive die tool segment in the country and 20% of the machine tool sector. But the 2008/2009 financial crisis shrunk the market in Japan, and ownership knew it needed to find new customers to maintain the health of the company, which had a total capacity of 90,000 tons annually and about 1,000 employees.
“We are a very big foundry with lots of capacity, so we had to find more business,” Fukuda said.
At this same time, Fukuda was struggling with that complicated part mentioned earlier. With a 3D printing facility an hour away, Kimura had easy access to a developing technology, and Fukuda was getting excited about how the foundry could incorporate it into its business plan.
“The 3D printer changes everything,” he said. “You can change your design, and it’s no big deal. Any geometry you can put in the computer. The computer can do the design. The printer can print it.”
In 2009, 3D printers were only being used for aluminum, but Kimura Foundry wanted to print molds and cores for iron and steel castings, which melt at higher temperatures. This meant changing the sand. Fortunately, Fukuda has a strong background in chemicals, metallurgy, and materials, and spent 10 years at Kimura developing and improving the coating and washes for the foam patterns. He also had experience in ceramics.
“My idea was to change the sand to ceramic sand,” he said. “We designed the ceramic sand—changed the sand surface. So, we have our own sand that is very special, and we use a different treatment on the surface.”
The printers were being sold as a package—printer, binder, and sand; but Kimura Foundry wanted to go a different route.
“We changed the binder, the activator, the cleaner, and the media. Everything is our own design in Japan. It was so we can cut printer costs,” Fukuda said.
It took a few trials with different sand recipes, but eventually Kimura Foundry was happy with its result, and the foundry in Japan began making castings via its 3D-printed molds—in a process it calls direct molding—by 2010. And while castings made using its full mold process still comprise the lion’s share of production, the direct mold process is showing incredible growth. In three years, it saw a 600% increase.
Fukuda said 3D sand printing is not a low-cost process. The printers are generally expensive. And ceramic sand, which is what Kimura uses, costs more than silica sand. But Fukuda found a way to combat that.
“Ceramic sand is very expensive, so we designed our own reclamation system where we can recycle over 98% of our sand,” Fukuda said. “So, I don’t care that the sand is expensive—it is just the initial cost.”
Time for a Move
After a few years of the 3D printing business rolling along in Japan, Kimura Foundry was ready for another big change.
“We had never done business internationally before,” Fukuda said. “We made the decision to do something different, something special. People who want to find just the lowest cost casting, they go to China. We went a different way and went to the U.S.”
Kimura was drawn to the large potential new customer base in the U.S.—particularly castings for wind power—and sent a couple of salespeople over to open a sales office in Chicago in 2013. Their assignment was to sell castings that were being made at the Kimura foundries in Japan to then be shipped to U.S.-based customers. But like the rest of the world, if a U.S. customer was buying from overseas, they were most likely focused on buying castings cheaper from China and southeast Asia.
After a year of not much headway, the President of Kimura asked Fukuda to go to the U.S. with him and find what the roadblocks might be.
“After I returned to Japan, I told my boss, ‘if you want to do business in the U.S., you have to do the manufacturing in the U.S. and have your own facility. We are a manufacturing company,’” Fukuda recalled.
His boss agreed and surprised Fukuda by telling him he was going to run it.
“I told him I’m not a sales guy, I’m an engineer,” Fukuda said. “What do you want me to do? My boss said, your task is to find out what we should do.”
With a somewhat vague assignment to start a greenfield foundry, Fukuda relocated to Schaumburg, Illinois, in 2016. Using the same problem-solving skills, astute observations, and inventive thinking that developed a new business model for Kimura Foundry, he began his task.
While it might have seemed strange to some for Kimura Foundry to be expanding into the U.S. instead of a lower cost country, the size of the country and its market was a huge upside.
“In the U.S., the labor costs are high and material costs are high, but it is a very big market,” Fukuda said. “And U.S. customers are easy to work with and smart. They are open to discussion for business.”
Fukuda discovered U.S. customers are focused on getting quality parts first, and then may also focus on a number of factors, such as cost, delivery times, and speed to market. This is where he spotted opportunity for KFA’s 3D sand printing system.
“We sell castings, and at the same time, we sell time. I can show them our delivery time is five days,” Fukuda said. “The customer who needs time, we can do it. We can be a short lead time business.”
The decision made, Fukuda next had to find a location. After visiting several states, he settled on Shelbyville, Indiana. It’s within 500 miles of the country’s automotive center, the local and state governments were supportive, and several Japanese companies were already doing business there. This was a big draw for Fukuda, who had never lived in the U.S. and knew he would need some help navigating the construction process.
KFA broke ground in November 2017 but Fukuda was surprised that after three or four months, nothing more happened. The harsh Midwestern winter had stalled construction. Eventually, the steel frame was built in April 2018. Again, Fukuda was frustrated by delays and managing the multiple companies on the project.
“Finally, I got an idea and called all the construction companies to come to my office once a week and I said you guys discuss this together,” Fukuda said. “I do the budget, I will pay—you guys decide how it will get done.”
Construction was finished in October 2018, and KFA began making castings in 2019. Besides the 3D printers, the foundry in Indiana uses machinery and equipment sourced in the U.S., including a Tinker Omega mold handling system and induction furnaces from Inductotherm and Ajax. The artificial sand is sourced domestically, as well.
KFA started with a focus on prototypes in iron and steel. But what is interesting is its main business now is not prototypes but small production run orders for service parts, ranging from 1 piece to 150.
“Our customers in construction machinery have so many emergency cases because their supply chain is struggling. One part can hold up the machine,” Fukuda said. “Our price is higher because its 3D printed and quicker, but they cannot stop their line. We thought this would be a one-time business, but our customers repeat and repeat and repeat. Their original foundry source will catch up eventually. And that’s OK.”
In 2020, KFA entered into a joint venture, so now the company is 65% shareholders of Kimura Foundry and 35% a trading company in Japan. The joint venture infused more capital and cashflow into the business, which enabled the foundry to add aluminum to the melting mix and invest in a fourth 3D printer, to be delivered this summer.
“Now our business is very good. We have been almost at full capacity every day for nearly a year,” Fukuda said.
The reclamation system has been working like clockwork, as well. In two years, KFA did not change out its sand supply, while still providing quality castings with short lead times.