Choosing the right foundry to supply castings is one of the most difficult decisions in the manufacturing process, says Chris Thomas purchasing manager at Victaulic.
The company is known for the high quality custom castings that it supplies and also as the world's leading producer of mechanical pipe joining systems, putting him in a unique position to offer advice about this very critical selection.
As well as working for a major producer with foundries in China, Poland, Mexico and the USA, Chris also purchases castings that are outside the scope of service of the foundries he represents. He regularly sources castings in Europe, Asia and the Americas, and in this article offers his advice on how to identify the best suppliers...
Quality is the priority
In my job I am always looking for new foundries that can supply high quality castings. Identifying them can be hard – first I start with Google but I also use Thomas net and similar sites, as they offer more depth of information and better filters, for example by processes and materials.
Quality is absolutely the most important thing I am looking for in choosing a supplier. Price is important, but at the end of the day you can end up having higher costs in rework if quality is not right.
One critical measurement that customers are concerned about is sometimes termed as fallout’ - the measurement of the rate at which castings make it through the various machining cells on the shop floor and then need to be scrapped for defects such as shrink and sand inclusions.
This plays into the overall cost of dealing with a supplier. Once machining time and labour have been put into a part, and it falls out, that cannot be recaptured. It’s one thing to have the lowest per-piece price, but if castings cannot make it through to the finish in a good state, it can be costly.
To start trying to judge the quality of a foundry, I look at the types of samples pictured on websites and the level of complexity these images indicate. The next best place to go is the Quality Control (QC) area on a foundry website. This can tell a lot about how seriously a foundry takes quality - for example look for useful information about how many QC people there are on the foundry floor and what inspection instruments they own.
Of course it is very hard to judge a foundry's reputation wholly online and one of the best ways to check is to contact its other clients, but this information is not always easy to find.
The next step is to ask the foundry questions about the level of QC, how they made their online samples, if they use first article inspection, if they use a Coordinate Measuring Machine, the frequency of checks they carry out, and what they do when they encounter an issue. It is always worth speaking to people from the quality group to ascertain that quality is sufficiently high.
Assessing capabilities is very important and is an immediate way to differentiate between foundries.
Moulding capability is an important factor that says a lot about a foundry. Size and weight ranges may of course be critical to requirements but line speed is also important. The number of moulds per hour indicates the ability to deliver your requirements fast.
Basically anything that can reduce lead times is attractive to me. At the height of the economic crisis, average lead times were 4-6 weeks, now they are back to 12-16 weeks and reducing this is very interesting. Lean companies should not want to wait 16 weeks for a part. Modern high-speed moulding machinery offers an advantage here – look for Disamatics or similar technology.
As castings get more complex, so technology becomes more of a factor. It can set foundries apart from those that have been using the same technology for the last ten years. But ultimately quality and consistency is more important and is vital for a long term commercial relationship.
The financial stability of a foundry is also important but age itself doesn't say all that much as there were a lot of long established businesses that went under in the last five years. Recent investments are very relevant and it says a lot more than 100 years of experience that a company is still investing in its foundries – especially in the current economic environment. And it is not only major investments that are important to look out for, but upgrades of individual components such as new core making machines and sand systems as well.
The main value added requirements that I have are for machining, assembly and paint capabilities. You may not need them today but when they are required they can save a lot of time and money. When building relationship with a foundry this is something worth considering for further down the road.
Global reach may also be a big advantage. If you need parts in Asia, Europe and America, it may well be much simpler and more convenient to go to one supplier that can guarantee the same standards of service across the world. Transport is a cost and impacts lead times, but it is better to widen horizons and look for regional foundries, not just local ones.
Just in time delivery capability is also very important to consider, even if you don't need it right now. The foundry world is generally very slow to catch up with industrial trends, and having this option can indicate a foundry that is a step ahead of the competition.
Assess risk and negotiate
Any charging structure should consider a base price and then add on surcharges for fluctuations. Also, when negotiating it is worthwhile to establish penalties to cover extra air freight, logistics and warranty complaints for on-time performance or quality issues.
This is very important to get right at the start – for instance if I want 95% on-time delivery, will my supplier pay the air freight and overtime if there is a problem? It is best to establish a transparent price structure, increasing understanding and trust between both parties. If there is an extra cost, expect to see what it is and judge if it is reasonable.
Ultimately picking a foundry comes down to both personal experience and judgement. Assessing risk is a matter of attaching weight to factors such as quality, customer service, flexibility and lead times. These are the things that make a good long-term successful commercial partnership.
Measuring quality and consistency is not easy because anyone can say they are capable of meeting your order – I recommend running an audit of facilities, making a test run, and following up with random testing to ensure quality does not decline later on. It is also worth trying to acquire certificates of insurance from suppliers.
Finally it is also important to always perform incoming package inspections, and if things don't meet your standards call the foundry and send back at the suppliers’ expense. Corrective action is important - how a supplier reacts to a problem shows a lot about the company, their real capabilities and their willingness to change and meet your needs.
About the author and Victaulic
Chris Thomas has a degree in Mechanical Engineering and is currently working towards his MBA with a focus in Supply Chain management. He has been an employee at Victaulic, the high quality castings manufacturer, for over five years. During that time he has held positions as a foundry engineer, production planner, production supervisor, and currently is a commodity manager in the sourcing department. His responsibilities include managing suppliers on a global basis for purchasing stainless steel and ductile iron castings, third party machining, bar stock, and stainless steel tube.
The Victaulic European foundry, located in Poland, uses technologically advanced Disamatic pouring equipment for fast order responses and the ability to make multiple pattern changes in short order. Capable of delivering different grades of ductile and malleable iron to meet specific requirements, Victaulic high quality custom castings can also be machined, painted and even rubber coated.
The 10 hectare/24.7 acre site employs over 400 highly qualified specialists from the casting trade and serves clients in a range of countries across Europe. The most common parts manufactured include valves, pumps and railway fasteners but a whole range of other pieces are produced on a daily basis.