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Defining the Market

Oct. 1, 2010
Barron Industries finds its niche in precision investment casting by expanding its operation and increasing its product offerings with a range of R&D, processing, fabricating, and finishing capabilities.
Barron Industries conducts a wide range of quality control measures on its products. Here, an auxiliary cooling module assembly — consisting of two machined aluminum castings, a thermostat, rubber O-ring, pressure testing of auxiliary cooling module — is subjected to pressure testing.

In a perfect world, every metalcasting operation would be highly oriented toward design, with short product development times and efficient data management, multi-function production capabilities, and high-quality, complex finished products that customers value. In the real world, all those attributes are available thanks to investment casting. It can be done, and while it’s not necessary to have been in business for 87 years as Barron Industries has been — the experience has been invaluable to getting the routine down right.

Barron Industries in Oxford, MI, is an investment caster, to be sure: that’s “our core business,” president and CEO Bruce Barron assured us. But, the 100-employee company is also a product designer with extensive CAD capabilities; a rapid prototyping operation; a CNC machining operation; and a finishing and fabricating center with welding, painting, plating, and assembly capabilities.

“There are many companies that can do everything that I described under one roof, except for the metalcasting,” Bruce Barron observes, “and, there are a lot of metalcasters that can pour a lot of alloys but they don’t have all the other manufacturing operations in one location. So, that’s our niche.”

The Barron family has been in the metalcasting business since Bruce Barron’s grandfather started a Detroit iron foundry in 1923. For 69 years, they made very large sand castings, but the diversification started in 1983 with the purchase of a precision casting foundry in Oxford, MI. That plant is the core of today’s operation, having been expanded in 1998 and again in 2008. “All of our business is centered on precision castings,” he confirms, “with a lot of value-added operations.”

Adding the value to those investment cast products is the whole idea, he advises. For example, being a Michigan operation Barron Industries had been producing automotive castings for decades, but it started to supply precision castings to defense contractors in the late 1980s. “We’d sell our castings to contract machine shops that would machine them up and paint them, and sell them to General Dynamics. So we thought: ‘we’re doing a lot of the engineering, and providing the engineered part; why can’t we do the machining?’” Bruce Barron now recalls.

Robotics are used to ensure that ceramic molds are produced with accuracy and efficiency.

In 1990, the company procured a “fairly high-volume” automotive contract from General Motors, involving steel investment castings that required secondary machining and assembly. Over the course of the six-year program, producing several hundred thousand components, Barron Industries accumulated a wealth of understanding about what is needed to compete in the machining and assembly field.

“So, we took what we learned from that first automotive job and applied it,” he explains. “We solicited our other customers to support us in adding value to the castings we were making for them by doing all the CNC machining.”

For a metalcasting company then in its seventh decade of operation, that was just a start. Rapid prototyping technologies were being developed and commercialized in the mid 1990s, and the whole concept seemed particularly relevant to the “auto guys,” with whom Barron Industries continued to do much of its investment casting business. “We got opportunities to use the (rapid prototyping) technology and demonstrate its capabilities within the precision casting arena,” Bruce Barron says.

“So, we invested in the machines that make the prototype models at the same time that we were investing in the CNC machining equipment to machine our own castings. We found this to be a very good business niche. Prior to that, we just made castings, in low- to medium-volume runs for our customers. Now, we’re making prototypes, we’re doing all the machining, and we’re assembling products, in both low volumes and in higher volumes.”

Barron Industries uses various prototyping processes — stereolithography and solid object printing — specifically to accelerate the design and tooling process for investment casting. But, in the broader sense Bruce Barron explains that the objective is to work with customers very early in the R&D process, in order to secure a place in their engineering and procurement plans.

The variety of products manufactured, finished, and assembled are tracked via a web-based ERP program that keeps detailed work orders visible and accessible, plantwide. Manufacturing processes are continuously monitored to make certain exacting specifications and quality standards are met.

“You know, there’s a saying today,” he advises: “If you wait until there’s actually an RFQ, you’ve already lost the business.” It’s the same logic that now has Barron Industries extensively involved in CAD processes for customers’ designs, as well as its own production process modeling with Finite Solutions Inc.’s Solidcast solidification modeling platform.

While the organization has diversified and its process advance technologically, Barron Industries keeps its identity as a metalcaster. “Two-thirds of our revenues are generated from the sale of investment castings,” the president/CEO reports, “and the other third comes from machining and assembly.”

But, diversification is critical to the formula. “The investment castings that we produce are formed in any of about 30 alloys that we melt on a regular basis,” Barron details, adding that it has a menu of more than 200 ferrous and nonferrous alloys available for smaller, less frequent runs. Aluminum alloys have been gaining an increasing share of Barron Industries finished products, as defense contracts account for a larger share of its work orders.

Also growing are the specific investment castings that Barron Industries is producing. Bruce Barron reveals that the company’s capabilities now include nonferrous castings measuring 3535 in., and up to 18 in. tall. Such parts may weigh only 200 lb., he points out, though the foundry has produced smaller investment castings weighing up to 500 lb.

“There seems to be a greater demand for larger investment castings,” he confirms, “because of the quality and integrity that can be achieved, along with the tolerances and surface finishes, we do have quite a few customers that really are pushing toward better capabilities in terms of size.”

Investment casting presents an opportunity for these customers to achieve lighter components, with more creative designs. “We’re getting into FE analysis with our customers now,” according to Barron, “so that we can start with these bulky designs and take advantage of investment castings’ thin-wall capabilities.” Examples of these efforts include control arms and suspension components, products that generally had not been considered as investment castings.

“For us, the future is in larger precision investment castings,” Bruce Barron explains, “with thin walls, but lighter overall. Whoever can take the capabilities of the process and scale them upward, and also find a way to maintain a reasonable cost structure, will be rewarded. There’s a very good market there,” he assures. He’s confident of a rebound in demand for aerospace castings, especially for companies with flexible design and production capabilities.

It’s in that pursuit that Barron Industries recently obtained AS 9100 certification (the prevailing aerospace industry quality standard); it previously achieved TS certification.

“Our core business is investment casting, and it always will be, but we’re going to go larger, we’re going into aerospace, we’re going to stay strong in defense, and probably expand into medical equipment,” Bruce Barron explains. “I’m sure we’ll see other markets and try to diversify into them, too, but all of the other processes — machining, welding, fabrication, assembly — are very important because those added-value functions help to maintain margins that allow us to invest in new equipment and maintain a corporate structure that’s very solid, with staffing, engineering and quality personnel. If all we sold were castings, we wouldn’t look the way we look today, so it’s important that we keep all those added-value processes.”

The larger observation to be made is that to be a successful investment caster an organization has to establish multiple auxiliary capabilities that support the value of an investment cast part. Even within a specific process function, a successful investment caster like Barron Industries has to maintain different capabilities — four coreless induction furnace sizes (200 lb, 2500 lb furnaces, and 1,000 lb), for example, or multiple NDT options for finished castings.

Managing it all would be daunting, were it not for Barron’s Plex Online web-based ERP subscription — which allows the metalcaster to maintain a paperless work environment with exceptionally detailed work orders accessible through a series of HMIs on the plant floor.

“We can ship electronically, receive payments electronically, invoice electronically, send notifications … we don’t send invoices out to most of our big customers,” Bruce Barron explains. “We even have the ability to give our customers a view of all their work-in-process, in real time.”

If this is the standard for success among investment casters, is there anything that the rest of the metalcasting industry can learn from it? Bruce Barron insists that “casting” is the basis for all that they do at Barron Industries, but customers need to know what that means for them, for their products, and for their organization. “You have to define what you do, do it well, and you have to brand yourself for, so that customers can understand what you do.

“Metalcasters that have unique capabilities to offer have got to just really hammer that message home to their customers — show them they can deliver what the customer wants, and that they are good at it.”