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No Place Like Home

July 26, 2007
According to some estimates, total average spending for direct materials may almost double through 2008 from 21 to 39%. But, a Wisconsin investment caster is proving to manufacturers that the best deal can be closer than they think.

Signicast's Hartford, WI, investment casting plant is organized as a series of production modules, producing parts in medium and large volumes

Signicast earned an AFS casting design award for this carbon steel drop tube, a design that replaces a nine-piece sheet metal weldment.

Every CEO knows the meaning and ramifications of the term "revenue growth." Often, the effort to grow revenue involves reducing costs to maintain or expand profits margins. This becomes more difficult once the routine challenges facing every manufacturer are figured into the equation: customers' changing demands, supply-chain problems, unexpected costs for materials, labor, etc.

Increasingly, U.S. companies turn to low-cost countries (LCCs) to source their goods and materials, as way to control costs and grow revenues. Among the countries emerging as sources of lowcost manufactured goods are China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Mexico, and Brazil.

Some estimates suggest that companies sourcing materials or products from an LCC can save nearly 40%, much of the savings resulting from lower labor costs. However, low labor costs don't necessarily add up to a good business decision. Sometimes the best deal can be found at home, as one Wisconsin-based investment caster has set out to demonstrate.

Signicast fights back
Signicast was founded in Milwaukee in 1959 as manufacturer of investment-cast metal signs. In the 1980s, the company's management began looking at the investment casting process in a new way. Although Signicast's customers were enthusiastic about the quality of its investment castings, the long lead times and high incidence of problems were serious drawbacks. In response, Signicast developed and implemented a new way of investment casting, based on the principles of Continuous Flow Manufacturing (CFM).

By looking at investment casting through the prism of CFM, Signicast eliminated earlier complaints. It managed to help customers increase their profits by providing them with complete, high-quality components, delivered on time, at a low cost.

Today, the Signicast plant in Harlford, WI, demonstrates how this is done. Rather than moving large batches from station to station, in the typical manufacturing model, Signicast maintains an unending stream of individual components flowing continuously through the plant. Even smaller orders go from entry to shipping with no interruptions. Process monitoring and control is managed though Signicast's proprietary software, which helps to ensure that production schedules stay on track.

The core of Signicast's CFM approach are a series of automatic storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), which function as both a material handling and storage system. The ASRS units automatically move products from one department to the next, eliminating forklifts and making sure the parts get to where they need to be, when they need to be there. In addition, an electronic tracking system provides flexibility by allowing for processes to be changed in mid-stream, if necessary.

Beyond CFM
Although Signicast's CFM process is key to its success, the company has demonstrated that it can compete with LCCs by eliminating some hidden problems that arise when sourcing products from overseas suppliers, problems that take away from any expected savings. Signicast president Bob Shueman points out, "While it is indeed true that countries like China, Korea, and India can offer significantly lower production costs, businesses often fail to realize that production costs are only a small part of the total cost equation. As many of our customers can attest, hidden costs such as tariffs, shipping, production delays, etc., turn what originally seemed like a manufacturer's ‘dream come true' into a horrendous nightmare. Signicast shows that when smart business is accomplished, U.S. businesses can succeed."

Simply eliminating the many headaches of overseas production — such as skewed translation details, distance, customs delays, time zones and quality — they elucidate the trade-off of cheaper costs in a foreign country and the abundance of additional complications. As Schueman outlines, among the problems encountered most often by buyers sourcing from LCCs are inferior quality, lack of patent protection, technical considerations, and supply-chain complications.

Quality issues
Anyone who pays even casual attention to consumer-protection issues realizes the rising number of problems involving products manufactured in China. In fact, the number of Chinese-manufactured products recalled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has doubled in the past five years, driving the overall number of recalls to a record level. This means that China alone is responsible for about 60% of all product recalls, compared with 36% in 2000, and begging the question: Does using an LCC really help a company's bottom line?

Needless to say, working with a domestic investment caster eliminates the communication difficulties regarding job specs and other key information. More important, the buyers know what the quality standards are from the start. LCCs frequently have different quality requirements, so deviations from the standard are commonplace. Also, frequently it turns out that the company a customer signed with is not the one producing the product they receive. It is not unusual for busy foreign metalcasters to subcontract services from other foundries or subcontractors that have not been qualified by their customer's quality-control experts.

Product quality is not a problem for Signicast's customers, as evidenced by the company's recent "Best-in-Class" award in the American Foundry Society's Casting of the Year contest.

Patent protection
Patent laws in LCCs tend not to be as comprehensive as they are in the U.S., Canada, or the European Union. Additionally, its is difficult to enforce any such laws in those countries. Thus, buyers of castings from these companies risk losing millions of dollars when their supplier company duplicates their product and brings it to market at a much lower cost.

To prevent such problems, the purchasing companies must invest a lot of money and time performing comprehensive documentation checks, to help to ensure licenses are proper and taxes have been paid.

Technical and supply-chain considerations
If a purchasing company sources all its supplies from an LCC, it makes it very difficult to access new product development and technical assistance. After all, sending people around the globe is expensive. The alternative — training people in that country to act as a liaison — is also expensive, as well as time-consuming and risky.

For example, should a customer need to make changes to a product, working with n LCC supplier could slow down the product's time-to-market by months. Signicast carries zero inventory and provides JIT delivery, so changes can be made and the product brought to market in less than two weeks. Or, if a situation develops where the market for a product improves beyond expectations, and production ramps up, the typical delay in delivery from a LCC is at least seven weeks, and transportation becomes more expensive, too, as premium freight costs come into effect.

These expenses are considerable, often amounting to millions of dollars per year for some companies. Signicast claims it can ramp up within two weeks, without charging the premium freight costs.

American tradition
As evidenced by Signicast's success — the company recently opened the fifth addition to its manufacturing plant, completing a 25-year growth plan in less than 13 years — it is possible for metalcasters to compete with foreign counterparts. While most of U.S. manufacturing is struggles to stop the exodus of orders going overseas, this investment caster is showing that smart business, streamlined production, and production flexibility offer the potential for success right in our own backyard.

Smarter Investment Casting

One way for invesment casters to stay competitive is to capitalize on new technology, and a new stereolithography resin introduced in 2006 by DSM Somos ( is promoted as a new tool to keep them on top. Antimony-free ProtocastT AF 19120 combined with the QuickCast program for pattern building allows low-volume production of parts in virtually any alloy without concern for degraded material properties. In addition, the removal of antimony automatically eliminates much of the ash created during pattern burnouts, simplifying clean-up and helping to get the mold ready for production faster.

Traditionally, stereolithography (SL) resins used for direct casting have contained antimony. Antimony is used as the photo-initiator that converts the liquid resin to a solid when exposed to ultraviolet light during the SL process. Today, however, in rapid prototyping many direct-cast patterns are created using QuickCast. This process creates a lightweight shell with a honeycomb infrastructure that provides sufficient strength for mold creation, yet it allows the pattern to collapse inward on itself during burnout in order to prevent damage to the ceramic mold. When the pattern is burned out, it leaves a residue of ash or oxide — most of which is made up of antimony.

Having an antimony-free resin simplifies the post-mold-creation clean-up process by removing as much as 80% of the ash normally left be-hind. This greatly reduces the chance of blemishes appearing on the cast part, assuring it will require less reworking to arrive at the finished form. In short, engineers can take advantage of the benefits of the QuickCast process without concern that antimony is left over, because it wasn't there in the first place.

ProtoCast aF 19120 advantages
The low ash content of burned out patterns allows engineers to take advantage of the direct casting process for a wider variety of alloys, from aluminum to titanium. This leads to time and cost savings over machining molds.

An investment-cast part made using ProtoCast AF and the direct casting method can be produced in as little as four weeks, even with the most complex geometries. This is an improvement to the 20-30 weeks required for making similarly complex parts with a machined mold.

Some other benefits are:
• Shorter product development
- Fewer blemishes are produced, to less time is spent removing them.
- Several design variations are created/tested at once, rather than using the standard, one-at-a-time, iterative process typical for high-performance parts.
- Generate short production runs, to gain a market advantage while a more permanent, traditional mold is being created
• Cost-effective customization:
- Customize castings to particular customers' requirements, rather than setting a high minimum volume in order to meet cost projections.
- Create single, customer-specific castings efficiently. For example, a doctor performing a knee replacement may X-ray the original and have an exact match created in titanium, rather choose one model from among 15 generic knee designs, which then has to be adjusted to fit the patient.

Using a QuickCast pattern also means designs can have more complex features (such as undercuts) that cannot be incorporated into a two-piece machined mold. There are virtually no limitations on the design of the part, allowing engineers to optimize the casting for the job instead of the moldmaking process. All of this is made possible by removing the antimony from the resin, thus widening the range of alloys that can be investment cast using direct-cast patterns.