AFS Hoyt Memorial Lecture: Innovate or Die

John Keough

I became an accidental tourist in the metalcasting industry in 1975. The journey that followed, now going on 48 years, has ranged from terrifying to delightful. It has never failed to give me intellectual stimulation and has allowed me to work with fantastic people—many of you who have become lifelong friends. I am honored to be able to share bits of that ongoing adventure and some remarkable things I have learned along the way.


In 1969, rich with industrial pollutants, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Lake Erie was forecasted to eutrophicate into a reedy bog, and New England forests were diminishing due to acid rain caused by un-scrubbed effluent from the stacks of coal-fired electric plants, blast furnaces and, yes, cupolas. Approximately 45% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, with 35% of the world’s population starving or malnourished.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), formed in 1970, was mandated to administer the 1970 Clean Air Act and, subsequently, the 1972 Clean Water Act. It was a rocky start, resulting in little action. By 1973, Congress demanded results, so the EPA targeted (surprise!) motor vehicles; mandating the installation of not-yet-market-ready catalytic converters on all U.S.-made vehicles beginning in model year 1975, reducing their power and fuel efficiency by over 30% … but greatly reducing tailpipe particulates. (The Ford Boss 302, small-block 5.0 liter engine power dropped from 220 hp in 1972 to 140 hp in 1975). Net result: We increased fuel consumption of passenger vehicles, reduced smog, and killed the muscle car. (It subsequently took decades to raise the efficiency of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to their current level).

In 1973, I entered the University of Michigan, College of Engineering, ready to change the world. The earth’s human population was just under 4 billion people and over 2 billion of them had limited access to potable water. Agricultural advancements were not keeping pace with population increase. It was pretty clear that, as engineers-to-be, we were either going to have to “innovate or die.”

Atmospheric CO2 had slightly risen to 325 ppm. Experts told us that we were entering a sustained period of global cooling. Industry analysts claimed we were at “peak oil” and that we would be out of fossil fuels by the year 2000. As a result, the U.S. began installing nuclear plants and ended up building over 50 of them during the 1970s. Then, in 1979 a partial meltdown occurred in the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor near Middletown, Pennsylvania. A small, non-lethal amount of radioactive steam and iodine was released. Nobody died, but the anti-nuclear movement was galvanized, and further expansion of nuclear power was virtually ended.


By 1975, I was a sophomore angling for a degree in mechanical engineering. I was an unconventional student—married with a small child and commuting over 30 miles each way to campus Monday through Friday. After breaking my leg in a skydiving accident, I lost my night-shift job as a millwright-welder. I was paying my own way through college, so I took a job working until closing at the Sears store at the Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor, Michigan, five or six nights each week. I was busy, but it wasn’t enough. I was grateful for my job at Sears, but we had more money going out than coming in, so I needed a supplemental job, preferably on campus, with flexible hours, so I could squeeze work in between classes.

While studying in the breakroom in East Engineering, I overheard that Professor Richard Flinn was looking for a tech/intern. Timing is everything. I knocked on Professor Flinn’s door and made my case. I told him I was pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering and explained my need for day work. He asked me what I knew about foundries, and I dodged the question by listing off all the other skills I had acquired following my engineer-farmer-Dad (baling hay, drafting, welding, pipe fitting, steel fitting, hardness testing, carpentry, and automotive and small engine repair, etc.). He told me if I would be willing to go to the undergraduate advisor and reorganize my academics to go for dual bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and materials and metallurgical engineering that he might have a job for me. I asked, “When do I start?” My journey in the metalcasting industry had begun. I had no idea at that time that Professor Flinn was the FEF Key Professor at University of Michigan and that this serendipitous change in course would change the trajectory of my life.

Professor Flinn was an innovator; I watched and learned how he addressed problems with a totally different perspective. When a customer project called for a 50% Mg/50% Fe alloy for the production of ductile iron it seemed a hopeless task. We all know that Mg oxidizes and burns violently. After a week of thought and calculation, Professor Flinn explained to me and a couple other students that all we needed was a 14-foot ferrostatic head to keep the Mg from vaporizing. No problem! “We’ll just build a 15-foot tall, resistance heated, graphite tube furnace.” We did, and it worked. We pushed pure Mg into the molten iron stream into a sealed sampling tube at the base of the furnace using a device that we cobbled together from a bicycle gear-change mechanism. This experience convinced me that process engineering was the place for me. I had been mentored by a master and was eager to get out in the real world and get to it.

At the 1977 FEF College Industry Conference, I had been feted in the Cape Cod Room at the Drake Hotel by the folks from GM’s Central Foundry Division. The first week of January 1978 I started at the Pontiac Foundry making gray iron blocks and heads for GM vehicles. I did everything from basement foreman to running the L-4 block line. I hit my stride in a production quality role where, using rudimentary statistical process control methods, I was able to solve a specific scrap problem on cylinder heads, taking the scrap rate from about 16% to under 3%. 

Then in 1980, the phone rang. I started as principal engineer in the Directionally-Solidified/Single Crystal Group at TRW’s Turbine Components Division plant in Minerva, Ohio (now PCC Airfoils, LLC). Robots, vacuum furnaces, nickel-cobalt superalloys, digital control devices, an Apple II desktop computer (oh my!), and climate controlled wax assembly. I was like a kid in a candy factory. The process challenges were no less daunting. I had a pivotal role in the commercialization of the single crystal superalloy turbine blade casting process at Minerva. Industry 3.0 was happening.

In 1984, I went into business with my brother at Atmosphere Group, manufacturing industrial heat treating furnaces and commercially heat treating (mostly) automotive stampings using the austempering process. This branch of my experiential tree led us to incorporate a new business, Applied Process Inc., (API) focusing on the commercialization of austempered ductile iron (ADI). 

For the next 35 years, we were on a mission developing the equipment, the process, the properties, and markets for ADI. We considered every steel or aluminum casting, forging, or weldment a potential ADI casting. I personally visited foundries in 40 U.S. states and 12 other countries—over 1,200 foundry visits in all. The process knowledge and industry friends gained during those visits has proven priceless. Today, worldwide production of ADI is approaching one million tons per year. 

In 2019, our holding company, Keough Ventures, exited ownership of API, selling our remaining ownership interest to Aalberts NV, and I discovered that “in retirement” I was able to get my work schedule down to about 40 hours per week. But now was the time to apply all that valuable process and business experience to new branches of my experiential tree. What innovations must occur for Industry 4.0 to continue our social progress—to feed, water, clothe, house and transport 10 billion (forthcoming) people? How could the metalcasting industry help? How could I help? What dragons would I have to slay?

Along the way, I observed some major social and scientific trends directly affecting my businesses and the metalcasting industry as a whole. Some were tactical and some were strategic, but woven together they present a path forward for metalcasting.


Currently, the earth’s population has crested eight billion and is forecast to level off at 10 billion by 2100. Atmospheric CO2 stands at 425 ppm and is increasing at about 2 ppm per year. Less than 9% of the world’s population is malnourished. The metalcasting industry makes the things that efficiently plant, grow, and harvest all that food stock. Lake Erie is now thriving and has become, according to regional fishermen, the “Walleye Capital of the World.” North America’s Eastern forests are fully recovered and producing record plant mass. Potable water remains an issue in Africa, but extreme poverty is now less than 20% of the global population. In general, the earth is in much better shape now than when I was a youngster.

I hate organic chemistry. (Memorization of carbon chains is not high on my “fun” list). Today, all MSE majors have to take it as part of their coursework. I was able to dodge it during my “metallurgy-heavy” studies, but life is for learning. Twenty-five years ago, while investigating the embodied energy for various material/process combinations and their direct proportionality to unit cost, I was drawn into the topic of Life Cycle Analysis and, indirectly, into the emerging CO2/climate change discussion.


The basis of life on earth is the following formula:

CO2 + H2O + Solar Radiation = Cellulose(C6H10O5)n + O2

Cellulose is plant matter. When plants die they decompose. If they are exposed to air they break down into CO2 and water vapor. (If allowed to decompose completely in air, the decomposing plant will give off ALL of the CO2 it absorbed during its growth). If they are covered with no available oxygen under little pressure they rapidly decompose into methane (CH4). If they are covered and under pressure, over time they metamorphosize into oil (CxHy liquid) or coal (CxHy solid). These products of decomposition are all mis-named “fossil fuels” when, in fact, they are naturally metamorphosized plant matter. It’s why we call methane “natural gas.” New coal, new oil, and new natural gas are continually being formed under the earth’s forests, fields, and oceans.

The earth has been generally warming since the last Ice Age (as it did after each of the three preceding Ice Ages). In the middle of the 20th century, the earth’s average temperature cooled for about 40 years followed by the current sinusoidally increasing temperature trend. Some in the scientific community noticed a coincidental increase in CO2 and CH4. Others then amplified this coincidence, often without any supporting science, turning it into a research money stream and, ultimately, into a binary political issue: Anthropogenic CO2 = Armageddon (even though anthropogenic CO2 is less than 2% of total atmospheric CO2). “Global warming” evolved into “climate change” and trillions of dollars later we are where we are.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., due to the active deployment of fracking technology, clean-burning natural gas has become abundant. Electric power companies are replacing 40% efficient coal-fired steam turbine plants with 60% efficient natural gas, combined-cycle plants (Figure 1). This was being done, not to reduce CO2, but to increase efficiency. This technology has driven an 18% reduction in total CO2 (Figure 2) and a 24% per-capita CO2 reduction in the U.S.

Wind and solar energy may contribute to CO2 reductions in the future but, ironically, they are energy intensive for their manufacture and installation and the CO2 payback is decades after their installation.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) has become a lightning rod political issue, but on average the models put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been wrong compared to actual observations (Figure 3).

With worldwide COVID lockdowns, commercial activity was reduced by over 10% for a 12-month period spanning 2020 and 2021. Even with that huge, worldwide experiment, no reduction in atmospheric CO2 was detected (Figure 4). In fact, there was not even a change in the slope of increase of atmospheric CO2. This is statistical verification that natural sources of CO2 are far greater than human sources.

Yes, the climate is changing. Yes, anthropogenic CO2 is likely a small contributor (less than 2% of total atmospheric CO2) but no “crisis” is imminent. In the last 40 years, atmospheric CO2 has risen by 31%. In that same period:

• Average global air temperature has increased by 0.17°C per decade.
• Average global sea level has increased by about 1.5mm per year.
• Average near-surface sea temperature has increased by about 0.1°C per decade.
• There is no measurable increase in the occurrence or severity of weather events.
• The Great Barrier Reef is growing at a record rate (with the most coral cover in 36 years).
• Elevated CO2 levels are resulting in increased plant mass, helping us to feed over 8 billion people per day.

In the big scheme of things, the planet has been slowly warming and the oceans have been slowly rising since the end of the last ice age. They will likely continue to do so until the start of the next ice age. The aforementioned trends do not justify blindly reorganizing society to some “zero-carbon” model. Coincidence is not causation. Perhaps, instead of focusing (solely) on reducing CO2 we might want to consider focusing on the science and engineering to reduce embodied and life-cycle energy…regardless of the energy source. Energy is what’s important.


Energy is the oft-underestimated input that we all have in every endeavor. We are all familiar with miles-per-gallon (mpg), or other measures of operating efficiency. What is generally overlooked is embodied energy; the energy input to manufacture, transport, install and/or deliver the goods. Often businesses, and even engineering analysts, look at a manufacturing plant as a black box with the energy inputs being the gas and electric meters. They don’t consider the people entering the factory—a major element of energy.

Intrigued with the concept of embodied energy and pondering the topic, I was motivated to diagram the inputs to the production of goods, and I was surprised at the result (Figure 5). I subsequently tested my derivation with financial data from actual manufacturing examples. The result: Goods consist of people (labor), materials, and energy. Labor consists of energy and materials. Materials consist of labor and energy. Energy consists of people and materials. A simple derivation concludes that the cost of goods is about 25% labor, 25% materials and 50% energy. This simple derivation allows one to accurately estimate the embodied energy in a thing based on its cost. You cannot “un-see” this simple derivation.

Digging deeper, one can explore embodied energy by material/process combination (Figure 6). The work done by Ashby et al., at Cambridge and, ultimately, GRANTA, inventories hundreds of material/process combinations. The embodied energy of specific, previously undocumented, material process combinations can be accurately estimated using the GRANTA work and other published process values.

In a manufacturing business, there is no more important factor than energy. Every process consideration should prioritize conservation of energy and elimination of waste. Every annual capital budget should include manufacturing or facilities installations that reduce energy consumption.

Metalcasting is the lowest energy path from metallic ores to a metal product. The cost of the inputs to metalcasting is proportional to their embodied energy. The cost of virgin aluminum represents the large amount of energy required to convert bauxite ore to aluminum. Secondary aluminum’s low cost reflects the low amount of energy to re-melt the aluminum.   

Part 2 will appear in the October issue of Modern Casting and cover life cycle analysis, embodied energy, and the role metalcasting innovation can have on both.

Click here to view the article and images in the digital edition of September 2023 Modern Casting.