Author: Nick Knotts, Industrial Engineer, The Lawton Standard Co.
What are some of the current trends in the foundry industry?
As the economic, social, and technological climate changes in the world, all industries inevitably must adapt to survive, and the foundry industry is no different. As a result, foundries across the United States are taking steps to ensure their survival in the near future, and their sustainability long-term as businesses. One of the things that makes the foundry industry rather unique is the collaboration that happens among competitors and all different types of foundries (Ferrous and non-ferrous, Green Sand and No-Bake, etc.). The foundry industry in the United States is currently in a state where it is in our best interest to try and help each other out, even if there is some healthy amount of competition. Due to this collaboration, many foundries are doing the same or similar things to continue to build their businesses for the near future and the distant future, which defines many of the current trends in the industry.
Economically, work in the industry, in the long-term, is trending much more towards highly specialized work that is very specifically engineered to meet a given application. This can be seen in multiple different facets of castings, particularly in terms of the requirements that a given casting must satisfy and in terms of more specialty metal compositions being requested. In terms of requirements, customers are demanding more forms of NDT, particularly X-ray, ultrasonic, and mag particle inspection, where previously, castings that required a larger amount of NDT were fewer than they are today. This could be somewhat related to the fact that the technology is much more accessible now than ever before, and it could also be related to how engineers outside of the foundry industry have changed the way that they are incorporating castings into their designs. In addition to that, NDT requirements often seem to be more specific and more stringent now than they have been in past times, this likely pertains to the application of the casting needing a stricter requirement. There has also been an increase in demand for specialty grades and metal compositions, typically those that start with a base type of metal and then alloy it up with some sort of additional element(s). While this has been common in the past, the industry is seeing more and more movement towards new grades that haven’t been made in the past, or have been made in the past, but sparsely. This is, again, probably related to the application of the castings and how they need to perform under given circumstances.
Changes in the workplace
Socially, the state of the workforce is constantly changing, but COVID-19 catalyzed a huge change in the workforce that has affected all forms of manufacturing, and foundries have been more heavily impacted than other forms on manufacturing. The changes in the workforce primarily revolve around the skill and experience of the workforce and the expectations of those within the workforce as to how an employer should treat their employees. The folks that are in the workforce now are less technical and artisanal than in times past, which means that some of what would previously be considered pre-existing knowledge for your average worker may not be anymore and it may need to be taught. In addition to that, the tribal knowledge that walks away with experience also means that there is some adjustment that needs to be made to accommodate for that knowledge being lost. Both factors become inherently more important for the foundry industry due to the exceptional amount of nuance that comes along with the casting process, all the way from molding to melting to pouring, so they tend to affect the foundry industry more heavily than others. There is also an increased emphasis being placed on work-life balance and how companies should accommodate that. Companies are beginning to address work-life balance in terms of offering days off for mental health that can be taken on short notice, balancing the workload more evenly between employees, and offering support services.
The evolution of foundries
Technologically, the foundry industry has been evolving constantly for the past 100 years, as has the world. Whether the technological advances be minor things such as a better HMI on a mixer cabinet, or drastic changes like changing the way in which a furnace operates, the changes have been constant. In more recent times though, the industry has been advancing towards more automation and more interconnectivity via industry 3.0 and industry 4.0 initiatives. Initially, foundries were not the fastest to adopt automation, especially in the United States, as the high amount of nuance and variability that is inherently part of the work posed somewhat of an entry barrier. Once the benefits of automation became clear however, foundries began to leverage it to increase their throughput and lower their costs. As technology continues to advance, foundries are finding new ways to leverage automation throughout their processes, and the labor market changes have catalyzed this transition.
Areas of focus
A particular area of focus for automation right now is within the cleaning room because the turnover rate in cleaning is higher than in any other department across the industry. Automatic grinding and cutoff are areas of interest for the industry at the moment, and some foundries have found repeated success in automating those processes, though it remains a technology only possessed by a minority of facilities. Upon adoption of the automation, when industry 4.0 came around and interconnectivity came into the limelight, foundries moved a bit faster to leverage the benefits. Industry 4.0 and the use of its principles remains among the highest priorities of organizations like the AFS and the SFSA to advance in the industry. The area in the limelight right now is AI, as the evolution of things like ChatGPT has brought emphasis to technology and how fast it is advancing. Foundries want to determine how they can leverage the massive potential that exists with AI to further advance their operations from many different approaches. In addition to AI, several of the other key pillars of industry 4.0 are being utilized by foundries, primarily predictive maintenance for critical equipment, simulation, 3D printing, system integration, IOT, and cloud computing. A lot of funding is being put into researching foundry 4.0 right now, both by professional societies/organizations and by private companies of various sizes.