This article by John Lippman was published in the Valley News on June 16.
Not long ago, there used to be a lot of soot inside the Vermont Castings foundry, where workers would come off shifts coated in black, looking as if they had just emerged from a coal mine.
But carbon particles don’t mix well with $450,000 Swedish-made robots, let alone people.
That’s one of the stark changes at the Randolph maker of wood-burning stoves, which has just completed a plant upgrade that converted what had resembled a Victorian-like era mill into a clean, energy-efficient manufacturing plant. It’s a factory where knowing how to program a computer-operated grinding and drilling machine is as critical a skill as safely pouring molten iron into sand molds.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs,” Bill Corey, a drill and grind manager and 20-year company veteran, said about the corporate ownership changes Vermont Castings has experienced since its founding in 1975.
But the acquisition nearly four years ago by Iowa-based office furniture and hearth products company HNI Corp. has brought stability — and rapid modernization.
“We knew there was going to be a big change, but we didn’t know what to expect,” Corey added. “Everything happened so quickly, there was not time to look back.”
Over the past three years, HNI — through its Hearth & Home division — has invested $10 million in upgrades at Vermont’s Casting’s Randolph and Bethel plants, and made the foundry the manufacturing center for iron castings for other brands of its wood-burning stoves. The company has pulled back to Randolph subcontracting done in Belgium, China and Washington state as the modernization increased the plant’s capacity and reduced its operating costs.
The plant modernization in Randolph includes upgrades to the plant’s exterior, two new computer numerical control (CNC) machines, complete renovations of the administrative offices and lunchroom (it helps to be owned by an office furniture company), new air compressors to power shop floor machinery and equipment and a “robotic processing center” designed to make stove parts and reduce the incidence of workplace injuries.
Even with the use of robotics, the company aims to hire 10 more workers in the coming year — although like other companies in the Upper Valley it is having a difficult time finding people in the current low-unemployment environment.
“I don’t think we haven’t gotten anything we’ve asked for,” said Jeffrey Nelb, the vice president and general manager recruited two-and-a-half years ago to run Vermont Castings. The parent company, he said, “wanted everything under one roof. We’re 85 percent to 90 percent there.”
Vermont Castings employs 100 people, about 85 of whom work at the Randolph plant and another 15 at a facility in Bethel where the stoves are enameled in nine different colors (brown “mahogany” and red “bordeaux” finishes are the most popular of the porcelain finishes, although fully 70 percent are plain black).
The foundry only makes the iron plates, while the stoves themselves are assembled at sister plants in Pennsylvania and Iowa.
The three induction furnaces consume some 40,000 pounds of scrap metal per day — 100 percent of the raw material comes from recycled materials — and the factory stamps out about 200 stove and fireplace inserts per day, according to Nelb.
To make Vermont Castings more energy efficient, the company turned to Efficiency Vermont, the state program created by the Legislature to provide Vermont businesses and others with technical services and funding to improve their energy use. Efficiency Vermont staff came in and did a complete analysis of the foundry, recommended improvements, and steered Vermont Castings to the right contractors who could undertake the work.
“I can’t say enough good things about them. They were able to run this project cradle to grave,” Nelb said. “We’re a small shop and didn’t have the people on our own” to engineer the work.
One of the chief improvements was a $460,000 upgrade — partially paid for by Efficiency Vermont — to the compressed air system the foundry draws upon to power equipment throughout the plant.
The air compressor room was moved to another location within the plant (it previously had been located below the electrical transformers, presenting a fire hazard) and three new compressors were installed in addition to two others that were shipped in from another Hearth & Home plant in Kentucky.
Brad Long, the account manager at Efficiency Vermont, said the old compressors “were so fatigued they were leaking six large barrels of mechanical lubricating oil per year.”
The new high-efficiency compressors are projected to save $61,000 on electricity costs, which means they virtually will pay for themselves after 7½ years.
Nelb said there will be additional savings on maintenance costs, and “redundancy” has been built into the system so that equipment can continue to be powered if one of the compressors fails.
Another $104,000 is being spent to convert the foundry’s lighting system to high-efficiency LED fixtures, a project which began last year and will be completed by July.
Previously, illumination was so poor inside the plant that it at times resembled being in a cave. The conversion is expected to save $20,000 annually in electricity bills, which will pay for itself in 3½ years, according to Efficiency Vermont.
Besides the efficiency investments, Vermont Castings updated its blasting machine, which makes the sand molds into which molten iron is poured, overhauled the plant’s ventilation system and installed a remote control to operate the ladle hoist for the molten bucket — a big safety improvement that allows the operator to remain a distance away from the machinery.
The plant upgrades have directly translated into a lower injury rate among workers. In 2014, there were a total of 42 plant injuries; year-to-date as of June 2017 there have been two, according to Nelb.
“We’re challenging ourselves to get better everyday,” Nelb said.
Nelb said one of the goals, in order to reduce injuries, is to have anything weighing more than 25 pounds in the manufacturing process be handled by robots or hoists.
The one-armed Swedish-made robot, for example, is operated by a technician via “tendon controller” gloves, which allows him to grind and drill stove parts that were previously done by hand.
“It’s about a shift in skill sets,” said Jeff Schein, tooling manager at Vermont Castings, explaining that three to five workers will be trained to operate the machine. “It’s not meant to displace anyone, but is really for safety and quality improvement.”
Richard Locke, a melt and mold manager who has been with Vermont Castings for 13 years, remembers the period not long ago in 2013 when everyone was idled for two weeks without pay and the company had bounced between four different owners within seven years.
“It’s been a great couple of years,” Locke said. “Someone stepped in here and took care of us.”