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USA - Steel Castings enjoying success in Keokuk

Keokuk Steel Castings Plant Manager Allan See led a room full of area business people Thursday on a guided tour of the steel plant without leaving the breakfast table at Holiday Inn Express.

Steel Castings, employer of 465 area residents, was the featured business at the Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce Recognition, Appreciation and Participation breakfast, sponsored by Griffin Wheel.

Steel Castings has a payroll of $15.6 million.

See, a Steel Castings employee since 1990, has been plant manager since July 2008. He replaced CEO and President Roger Courtney, who retired last year.

Also new last year, Sandmar Group of India, a company that Steel Castings used to do business with, bought the Keokuk plant.

“The last years have been some of the best years (for Steel Castings) in Keokuk,” See said. “We had $70 million last year in sales.”

See described the plant as a “jobbing shop” that works from blueprints sent by customers.

“We have more than 4,000 patterns,” he said.

The blueprint specifications are drawn into the computer and from that point, molds for the finished castings are produced.

The first step in making a casting is to make cores, which result in the castings' internal cavities.

Then, loop molds or a large mold are produced, using sand to set the mold up - a 2 1/2 to three minute job.

The metal for the mold is melted in an arc furnace or an induction furnace where all of the plant's stainless steel is made. The molten metal flows out of the furnace from a spout and is ladled into the molds at about 3,149-degrees Fahrenheit.

The ladling process requires three workers, who work close to the heat.

During the process, smoke is produced, from which several dust collectors that cost $600,000 to revamp, remove much of the dust.

“We compete against China,” See said. “China doesn't have to do that (run equipment to protect air quality).”

Chains or clamps bind the molds to keep the them from coming apart with the weight of the steel. Molds are used only one time because the intense heat burns them up.

When the casting is taken out of the mold, risers that help feed the molten steel into the molds (to make the casting sound), have to be burned off. The casting is then heat-treated in a natural gas powered furnace, coming out at 1,650-degrees. Many of the castings are placed into a quench tank while others are left to air-cool. Quench tanks contain a continuous stream of recirculating water from the cooling tower. The quenching process makes the steel stronger.

Keokuk Steel Castings makes high quality material, such as hub castings for the United States military, specifically, for Bradley tanks that are being used in the Iraq war. The sand in the Mideast wears out parts quickly.

From the quench tank, the casting is cleaned off in the finishing department.

“We have more than 60 people who do nothing but finishing,” See said.

Finishers use nine-, five- and three-inch grinders and cone grinders to guarantee that even the smallest areas of the castings are smooth.

Then the castings are checked for cracks.

Steel Castings also makes castings for the New York City transit system and must x-ray a certain number of those castings for cracks.

“We also do a lot of locomotive castings,” See said.

Some of the additional manufacturing at Steel Castings includes several sizes of hooks for large cranes, flow meters that measure natural gas and nuclear parts for China. Steel Castings is certified to do nuclear castings and is armor-certified.

Hook sizes are for 40-, 60-, 80- and 100-ton loads. The average weight of castings runs at 200 pounds.

“We are trying to make a 200-ton hook,” See said. Hook weight runs from 188 to 410 pounds.

See said production at Steel Castings is booked through March.

In an effort to reduce waste and costs, Steel Castings is investing in a $1.5 sand reclamation effort that will reduce the 125 tons of fresh sand purchased every day to 100 tons per week.

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