Is there a change in the air?

March 25, 2006
Metalcasters may share some common problems, but the best solutions are individual ones.

I work in a building on a street where the wind never stops blowing. Night and day, spring, summer, fall, and winter, there is a steady gale. Most people are accustomed to it, or no longer notice, but for years it’s seemed to me to be a serious problem — and one for which there ought to be a solution. Or, at least an opportunity.

For months now Americans have been fretting about our energy shortage. Gasoline and natural gas are maintaining unanticipated high price levels, unanticipated even though these prices have been rising for the past five years.

Making the current situation even worse is that we don’t have a single energy problem, we have dozens of them: too few fuel-efficient vehicle designs, insufficient refinery capacity, too many local and regional regulatory variations, not enough storage and delivery capacity.

We live in a country that has an extraordinary ability to solve problems, but great difficulty anticipating them and usually just as much trouble agreeing on solutions. For example, in my state energy supplies are not our only problem: we also need to create new jobs. And, while public officials make grandstand proposals to lure in casinos and keep out Wal-Mart, there is no effort to relate one problem to another by, perhaps, starting (or restarting) refineries, or pipelines, or nuclear plants. Or wind farms. Any one of these would lead to new revenue from property and payroll taxes, skilled jobs, spinoff developments, and any number of other good possibilities.

I was glad to learn that wind farms — or wind power plants — aren’t just a quixotic preoccupation of mine. These “plants” are somewhat well known because environmentalists object to them; they say they’re unattractive, but that’s a matter of opinion. Installed in large groupings, these windmills continuously generate electricity, mostly without noise or odor. The 28,000 windmills operating worldwide generate over 7.8 billion kWh of electricity annually, mostly in the U.K. and Europe but also in California, New Jersey, and elsewhere. In 2005, 2,400 MW of wind-power capability were installed in the U.S., and another 3,400 MW may be added this year.

And, there’s opportunities that follow this idea, too, because wind turbines need castings. Cast-Fab Inc., an Ohio foundry, casts ductile-iron hubs and other components for several wind-turbine builders. The company president and CEO recently estimated these orders could amount to 20-25% of the company’s 2006 activity. “We see it as a solid growth segment for us,” Ross Bushman said.

The growth is driven not just by demand. There is an opportunity presented by federal tax incentives. So, while the timing may be right for wind turbines, this sort of progress still demands determination and technical ability, and the foresight that allows some people to see more than just the same problems everyone else sees.

Let us hope that there are many more metalcasters with the foresight shown by Cast-Fab. Aluminum foundries and diecasters particularly need some visionaries to locate and develop new opportunities for their industrial segments to grow, and, just as important, to set examples for their colleagues about how this is done.

Wind turbines are not a market that every metalcaster can exploit, but as we should have understood before now such a solution would not be ideal even if it were likely. Too many operations now rely on the automotive sector for nearly their entire customer base.

While there are credible forecasts of future demand growth for lightweight automotive castings, that industry’s problems are many years from being resolved. Until then, foundries and diecasters have to find ways to improve their operations and combat the pricing pressure of powerful customers and foreign competitors. They need new ideas — lots of them — about how to make and market castings.

We live in a time when it’s not enough to define what troubles the metalcasting industry. It’s essential to see ways through those troubles that address and exploit the current conditions.

There may be some common problems for metalcasters, but the solutions undoubtedly are individual ones.

About the Author

Robert Brooks | Content Director

Robert Brooks has been a business-to-business reporter, writer, editor, and columnist for more than 20 years, specializing in the primary metal and basic manufacturing industries. His work has covered a wide range of topics, including process technology, resource development, material selection, product design, workforce development, and industrial market strategies, among others. Currently, he specializes in subjects related to metal component and product design, development, and manufacturing — including castings, forgings, machined parts, and fabrications.

Brooks is a graduate of Kenyon College (B.A. English, Political Science) and Emory University (M.A. English.)