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The Dotson Co. Rethinks, Reinvests, and Revitalizes

April 15, 2005
" we decided to reevaluate where we were going in our foundry business. Where were we at? What could we do?

After completing a seven-year restructuring program at his Mankato, MN, foundry, Dennis Dotson recalled how he, together with his Dotson Co. colleagues, began to look further ahead. “Starting in the late 1990s we decided to reevaluate where we were going in our foundry business. Where were we at? What could we do?”

The planning effort began by reviewing and evaluating the gray- and ductile-iron producer’s assets and resources: employees, customers, and plant equipment. “Starting at a zero-based budgeting concept,” Dotson explains, “we set up three teams of employees to evaluate each major part of our business. Each planning team included a cross-section of rank and skill, ranging from managers down to employees on the shop floor. We wanted a good knowledge base that had extensive experience in foundry operations.

The teams started their evaluations with a single assumption: there are no employees; what employee skills are needed and how can the resources be applied in the best way to use employees to operate a state-of-the-art foundry?

“We did the same thing with equipment,” according to Dotson. “... ‘We have no equipment; what equipment do we need to operate a foundry that can produce very high quality, cost-effective castings.”

And so on: “We have great customers; what is the best way we can serve those customers and future customers? What special skills, and value added services can we provide that will make us a very competitive and cost-effective supplier?”

Once the foundry determined that it had the foundation for a good workforce and customers with special needs, it concluded it needed to have a plant equal to those standards. They asked themselves what sort of foundry it should design and build to meet the current and future requirements?

Selecting technology-based equipment

To help identify the equipment needs — and evaluate the technology behind that equipment — the foundry relied on its staff metallurgist, John Clouse. He has more than two decades of experience with Dotson Co., as well as prior work experience in England, Canada, and other U.S. foundries. “John knows costs and the foundry industry very well,” according to Dotson. “We gave John the role of vice president of technology for the foundry. He became a prime mover as we went through and retooled our plant for the 21st Century. We examined every part of our business.”

It was then that the foundry started its “$10,000. Dollar Program.” Dennis Dotson explains: “Anytime we make an investment of more than $10,000, we must get a significant amount of shop-floor input. This means our employees are evaluating that purchase, and this may also include looking at equipment in other plants that could solve the problem. Our goal is to avoid second-guessing. ‘If you had asked me I would have told you, it wouldn’t work.’ We wanted to be sure that didn’t happen.”

Helping engineer additions

To help select the new technology and the plant additions Dotson relied on SandMold Systems. The firm is a longtime supplier for Dotson Co., it engineered and replaced an older sand system more than 30 years ago.

The firm is viewed by Dotson as a valuable source for equipment for its additions, especially in its ability to combine new equipment with existing installations.

“SandMold Systems has been updating our equipment and keeping us up-to-date with new technology for many years,” the company president explains. “For example, their new aerator and water addition system provides moisture for the sand before it goes into the sand cooler.

“They also supplied three new sand-delivery belt conveyors and a bucket elevator to enhance our sand-handling system. Before we were not able to get enough moisture into the sand, or if we got too much it could mud up the sand. The new water addition SandMold came up with works well and now our sand is very consistent,” says Dotson.

Keys to expansion

The new technologies adopted by Dotson Co. have been supplied, largely, by SandMold Systems and Roberts Sinto Corp., an arrangement that is quite satisfactory to the foundry. “I feel as a foundry we have direct access to the latest global technologies that these firms represent,” Dotson asserts.

The Barinder Grinder is a good example. Developed in Japan, the device has been proven in operation for over 20 years. “This equipment is far better than any automated grinding equipment we could find in the U.S. for cleaning our castings,” says Dotson.

“I purchased model 1205,” he says, “which means I had the good fortune of knowing 1200 models of this machine had been working for a long time before I bought it. We have purchased three Barinder grinders and I couldn’t be more pleased with the accuracy, speed, and consistent finished-product quality. The Barinder is a solution for cleaning castings that I have been searching for over 10 years. It brings our cleaning department into the automated age.”

SandMold Systems and Roberts Sinto worked together to outfit the foundry with new equipment. SandMold engineered the entire plant layout and the hot-metal pouring area. This included engineering a new hot-metal pouring system and making space for the EconoPour automated pouring system, and the new FBO IIIS flaskless molding machine and mold-handling system.

“We were looking for fast, reliable, and consistent mold quality with fast pattern changing capabilities,” says Dotson. “Roberts Sinto’s FBO IIIS flaskless molding machine provided those benefits, plus the FBO IIIS has automatic core-setting capabilities, which was a goal of ours to achieve better productivity.”

New automated mold conveyor

SandMold Systems developed an automated accumulating mold conveyor to transfer molds to the metal pouring area. This unusual design allows pattern changes to be made without stopping metal pouring, and it eliminates lost mold-production time that results while waiting for metal to be delivered to the line.

The hydraulically operated unit accepts molds as they are pushed out of the molding machine and onto a mold elevator, which raises the mold to the level of a reciprocating beam. Through a series of steps the mold is elevated off a walking-beam by a lift station, and the cycle starts again. Each mold is moved one position. When molds cannot be moved off the last lift station, the molds begin to accumulate at each preceding lift station. The system is very reliable and maximizes productivity of the molding machine and the metal pouring system.

“One of the advantages of running a 128-year old company is that there is a lot of history,” Dotson reveals. “And, history tells us that companies must recapitalize if they want to stay competitive, probably on a 10-year basis. In 10 years we have revitalized all our departments and in 10 years we will start all over again. I would be very surprised if we were still looking at the same Barinder grinder 10 years from now.

“What we have is a continual improvement project, and we are constantly reexamining our equipment,” says the president. “If you are not recapitalizing at least every 10 years, you are not going to be one of ‘the players’ in the future. It’s that simple.”