A career in metalcasting can be very rewarding, with recognition for technical accomplishments, personal and social bonds that are lasting, and even financial enrichment, in some instances. Young men and women who select a "career in metalcasting" may have all these in mind, and maybe as well the possibility of self-fulfillment, of gaining the awareness that they have accomplished their mission in life.
If they do that then such a ‘career’ rates a higher evaluation, as a vocation, which is the case of the newest selection to Foundry Management &Technology’s Hall of Honor.
Victor S. LaFay is widely known and highly regarded as an authority on the materials and chemistry related to green sand casting. His work with the major suppliers in that field has made his expertise known to foundries around the world. LaFay’s scholarship on the subject has been widely presented, published, cited, and applied. His work has earned the recognition of technical and professional associations for more than two decades.
Still, what always will be mentioned first in any catalog of Vic LaFay’s attributes will be his geniality, his generosity to colleagues and friends, and his determination to make each project, each contact rewarding, to return value to the scientific and industrial community to which he feels grateful.
LaFay has embodied the purpose set by FM&T when the Hall of Honor was inaugurated in 1992: “… to recognize men and women whose technical and process innovations; organizational leadership; professional and industrial standards; and personal contributions and achievements have improved and enhanced metalcasting as a science, as an industry, and as a community.”
A Public Purpose
LaFay’s career started in a way that would be familiar to many others who grew up in the middle of America, in the middle of the 20th Century, a young man fascinated by cars and the big industrial processes that produced them. He enrolled at Lawrence Technological University in his native Detroit, and there he gained the attention of Wayne H Buell, a past metalcasting industry executive who served as president of that science and engineering institution from 1964 to 1977.
The University recalls Buell as one who “advanced the notion that Lawrence Tech was a private college serving a public purpose,” a notion that apparently influenced the younger Vic LaFay.
“Dr. Buell was looking for a student to do a special project, recruited me, mentored me, and directed me to the foundry industry,” he recalled — the topic was “inorganic binders … sodium silicates” — and later, Buell directed the student to an intern position with Ford Motor Co.
That represented one kind of career fulfillment for LaFay, working in the auto industry, but it also raised his fascination with metalcasting. “Like anybody who’s watched metal being poured into a mold for the first time, it just totally excited me. It just gets into your blood, and one thing leads to another, and it becomes history.”
Buell’s influence undoubtedly was strong on many people in his career, but for Vic LaFay the effect was profound, and lasting. When he was awarded the American Foundry Society Award for Scientific Merit in 1990, he was fully mindful that the same recognition had been conferred 20 years earlier on Wayne Buell.
“It was so humbling … to stand in the shadow of the mentor was unbelievable to me.”
AFS had no doubt of LaFay’s own influence on the science of inorganic binders, noting in the presentation, “his many contributions to the foundry industry through dedicated service on: Technical Committees, Chapters and Congress Presentations, and especially for the technical developments of green sand additives and the promotion of quality assurance programs throughout the industry.”
The Fundamentals Don’t Change
That recognition was still more than a decade ahead when LaFay graduated from Lawrence Tech and started his professional career with American Colloid Corp., the notable supplier of foundry-grade bentonite for green sand molding materials. Even that engagement he credits to his mentor: “They saw an opportunity to pick up a Dr. Buell protégé, and a Ford intern,” he commented.
At American Colloid, the primary themes of LaFay’s technological expertise began to take shape, as his work centered on “the development of inorganic binders, and that was the subject of some of the early papers I completed, and (as I am still doing today) the use of bentonite for green sand molding.”
LaFay makes the insightful comment that the materials involved in green sand casting have not changed fundamentally since the mid 1970s, but foundries’ expectations have changed and so, necessarily, have the ways they use those materials.
“Look at the minerals business, bentonite, bituminous coal, these are products or materials that have been around a very long time, but we’re learning the different ways to use them better, for new generations of production processes and technology,” he said.
In that era, foundries interest in inorganic binders “was ahead of its time,” he continued. “The organic binder technologies (phenolic urethanes, furans) were the most popular methods of the time, but back in the 1970s people were becoming environmentally conscious. They were looking for alternatives. And if you look at the work being done in Germany now, and somewhat here in the U.S., people are looking at these technologies still. But in the ‘70s, it was brand new. People studying inorganic binders were looking way off into the future.”
“But,” he continued, “in regard to bentonite, in those days people were in the process of incorporating new molding machines, DISA and Sinto systems, particularly. So foundries had to adapt their more traditional molding technologies, like slingers, to modern molding machines.”
The higher-volume throughput and faster cycle times of those machine continues to be the standard for green sand foundries, the continuing research and ongoing technical development for sand and binder chemistry involves taking those traditional minerals and adapting them to changing molding methodologies. “Today’s machines are producing molds quicker and faster than they’ve ever done before, with higher dimensional tolerances, and that’s all been possible because of all the work done in the 1970s and 80s. And I was lucky to be in on the very early developments of materials needed to operate with those machines,” LaFay said.
Quickly, Consistently, Accurately
The production equipment not only made it possible to produce higher volumes of molds, more quickly and consistently, but molds with greater dimensional accuracy and tolerances. And, as the machines’ performances improved, the molding materials had to improve. Look, for example at the work done in the 1990s,” LaFay related: “That was where we came to understand emission characteristics, and how to use the great quantity of materials available to us. Something that had piqued my attention in the 1970s and ‘80s had been that people used bentonites and coals and other materials to make a good quality castings, but in the 1990s they began to insist on using the same materials but to achieve better casting dimensions, and to have a better environmental record as a result.”
The evolving nature of foundries’ operating priorities has been indirectly addressed in LaFay’s most recent technical paper, co-authored with Nick Richardson, a colleague with Imerys MetalCasting Solutions. Their study demonstrated how a “specifically designed blend” of high-efficiency coals improved casting quality and significantly reduced additive consumption in iron casting production.
Focusing on adapting materials’ applicability and performance for green sand molding proved to be an effective strategy for LaFay. After eight years with American Colloid, and still just 29 years old, he was offered the post as technical director for a rival green-sand materials supplier, Hill and Griffith Co. Leaving American Colloid in 1983 with only congratulations and best wishes ignited LaFay’s sense that the rewards of his career had more to do with his contributions than with his accomplishments.
“The American Colloid guys encouraged (accepting the new position), saying it was ‘the opportunity of a lifetime.’ We’d be competitors,” he recalled fondly, “but they recognized it was a great opportunity for me as an individual. And what I realized was that, the company I was leaving had supported me, and now my decisions had to start supporting others, to start giving back.”
So, that’s been his approach. “I am a classic example of a guy that got into metalcasting at an early age, and I’ve been a product development guy, consistently, because of the knowledge I gained early from my mentors,” he said.
Here, the timing has been critical, because since the 1980s metalcasting product development has depended increasingly on the industry’s material and technology suppliers. As the foundries’ objectives, priorities, and liabilities changed, they relied more heavily on their suppliers to develop new approaches that would overcome the challenges.
In the professional sense, too, LaFay has worked to improve the opportunities for others to fulfill their individual potential in the metalcasting industry. He has served as president of the Casting Industry Suppliers Association, chaired the Cast Metals Institute, and headed the steering committee for the Casting Emissions Reduction Program. His technological expertise on the critical industrial issues is essential to these projects, but his personal commitment is invaluable to those laboring for progress.
A Product Development Guy
Being a ‘product development guy’, the value of Vic LaFay’s personal commitment to metalcasting technology and industry is enhanced by institutional changes over recent decades. His longtime affiliation with Hill and Griffith ended when that firm’s green-sand product lines were acquired by S&B Industrial Minerals in 2007 -- a move that gave him an even wider, global community in which to demonstrate his insights to green sand processes.
In the past year, mining and minerals giant Imerys S.A. incorporated the S&B product lines as Imerys MetalCasting Solutions.
“Look at all the consolidation that’s occurred,” he reflected. “When I joined the industry in the ‘70s there were 12 or 14 premix producers. Now, there are two in North America and four worldwide, and these producers can put more resources toward R&D than the 12 could. So, it may be disappointing to the foundry industry, who have fewer suppliers to deal with, but they have greater resources available to them. Consolidation has made that happen.”
Those resources are critical to the effort of continuing the development of green sand process technology. It is making possible better analysis of the mined material, better refinement of minerals, and formulating products “that we never dreamed about in the ‘70s, in respect to the dimensional tolerance we are getting closer and closer to achieving today.”
This is a point re-emphasized in the paper LaFay co-authored for presentation at the World Foundry Organization recently, that “properly designed” material blends, controlled additions, and careful testing and monitoring of LOI achieved optimal casting surfaces and shakeout results for the iron foundry.
And so, it is on a global platform and with those greater resources that LaFay’s personal commitment to technological progress becomes more appreciated by foundry customers. For them, he is a conduit to the best ideas and practices of metalcasting operations around the world.
“I have many opportunities to publish and present topics, at AFS and WFO, for example, mainly to share knowledge and to absorb it from everyone else. What’s really been great has been the chance to go to places like Brazil and China; I’ve discovered so much similarity of interests and goals around the world. Everyone is so ready to lay their hands on new ideas, new knowledge.
“And we owe it to them to share,” he emphasized. “What they do in China or India, or Europe, we can learn from… and in the same way they can learn from the processes we’ve developed.”
His role has not gone unrecognized. In 2009, AFS presented Vic LaFay with one of its most esteemed awards, the Thomas W. Pangborn Gold Medal: “For leadership in the technical development of green sand molding and methods which has propelled this technology to meet the future demands of the metalcasting industry through improvements in environmental applications, sustainable raw materials, and foundry education.”
“Leadership” is not difficult to recognize when it’s demonstrated with consistency, and with personal integrity. LaFay – who for decades has also been a leader in the scouting movement – is quite mindful of the importance of good leadership, and how it relies on the responsibility of good people to forego their personal priorities so that individuals may progress together toward their common goals.
In the work of Vic LaFay, the results of his leadership are evident in the improved performances and high-quality castings of foundries around the world, but finds his fulfillment in noting their success. His sense of commitment to mentors and colleagues over decades and even up to the present is always clear. “In my view, it’s part of my ‘existence’,” LaFay reflected. He has achieved the career fulfillment that so many of us imagine, and the rewards are shared by all those sharing his commitment.