When you take a leap, you can make it across the canyon but still get bruised on the landing. In 2015, Saguenay Foundry (Saguenay, Quebec, Canada) took a breath and jumped by starting a new in-house pattern shop to supply all of its patternmaking needs. The $1 million investment was a proactive move to protect against a trend of skilled pattern shops and patternmakers closing and retiring without replacements. In the mind of Marc Savard, president and CEO, the leap was completely necessary, but he is candid about the somewhat rough start.
“It was tough. We have taken some bumps as we started the new pattern shop. We had some quality and delivery issues,” he said. “But I would say 95% of those problems are behind us, and now we are more than ready and we are going to get better and better.”
Saguenay Foundry is an iron casting facility that produces large heavy duty parts weighing from 200-16,000 lbs. It’s a traditional metalcasting facility that strives for technical innovation, which is reflected in its growing niche in rapid prototyping. When Saguenay Foundry went for it in patternmaking, it not only incorporated a traditional wood shop, it also invested in CNC technology to machine foam patterns, ideal for one- to five-part orders. Combined with its proprietary Nopatech technology, in which a robot machines sand molds in place of using a pattern, these new in-house patternmaking capabilities puts the iron casting facility in a position to meet the future needs of the industry.
“Because of new technology, the engineer can just open up his mind and design something. More engineers are going to be aware of this possibility and are going to ask for more complicated castings,” Savard said. “We are going to have to follow those trends. We have always been adding new technology in the last 20 years, and if you don’t do that, you won’t exist later on.”
The First Jump
Saguenay Foundry was originally operated as part of a machine shop until 1980, when the shop’s owner decided to exit the casting side of the business. An employee at the metalcasting facility bought it and began running it as an independent company. A forward-thinking man, Rejean Dubuc introduced computers to the operation in 1987.
“He was a strong believer that technology was going to help us, and I think we have kept that mentality over the years,” Savard said.
Dubuc also understood ownership was a strong motivator. In 1993, three employees made the investment to become small shareholders and then ultimately bought out the ownership when Dubuc retired in 2008. They were the owner’s son and robotic engineer Philippe Dubuc (now the company’s general manager), Savard, and Marie-Claude Tremblay, (chief financial officer). Recently, two more small shareholders have been added: Alex Rouleau, sales engineer, and Lysanne Hovington, human resources. Shareholders at Saguenay Foundry must work for the company.
“We put our hearts in the shop. We want to leave a legacy,” Savard said. “I plan to retire in 15 years and we’ve started lining up new shareholders who are in their 30s. We hope it will be the same process for them as it was for us.”
Being a shareholder is a huge motivator for Rouleau.
“I love that I am more involved,” he said. “It gives a lot of opportunity to see the multiple facets of the business.”
Rouleau is continuing Saguenay Foundry’s tradition of staying on the edge of technology and was heavily involved in building a new computer system that combined all its ERP and MRP reports into a single system for better billing, scheduling and part tracking.
“Our goal is to be the supplier our customers don’t have to worry about,” Rouleau said.
The introduction of 3-D technology in the business has helped attract and enthuse a new generation of workers. With an average age in the company at 34, Saguenay Foundry has a relatively young staff that will be growing into new leadership roles. Mistakes will be made, but that’s called gaining experience.
“Ten years from now, we are going to be in very great shape,” said Savard. “We will have all that experience but still a young workforce. For us, it’s important to keep that spirit of always having someone behind you who could take the keys.”
The Longest Jump
In 2005 and 2006, Saguenay Foundry’s shareholders saw that they were losing a lot of jobs for one to two-part orders because the traditional pattern was so expensive.
“Everybody was going to fabrication,” Savard said. “We are a job shop, and we are pretty efficient at those onesie/twosie jobs, so we tried to figure out different ways to [reduce the pattern cost].”
The team explored CNC machines to cut the patterns, but at the time, a typical pattern would take two weeks. It was too slow and would result in significant wear and tear on the machine. What Saguenay Foundry wanted was a robot that could machine a 3-D shape into a sand mold. By 2009, robotic technology had sped up considerably, and Saguenay Foundry was able to develop a software program that taught the robot how to machine in a 3-D environment, essentially combining CNC software with robotic programming. Having a robotic engineer as a shareholder was certainly helpful.
Installed in 2010, the robotic machining system was named Nopatech by Saguenay Foundry and has been a key piece in winning those single to two-part orders.
“The first three years, there was a learning curve, but since then we have been operating our Nopatech system about 70% of the time,” Savard said. “Customers benefit in both time and cost. If there are going to be several iterations, it’s better to use Nopatech. It helps our customers put their parts in the market faster.”
The Nopatech robot typically can handle 10 programs/castings at one time. It takes about eight hours to machine a mold, and the robot is basically left to run on its own after the program’s been entered into the software. The Nopatech process is patented by Saguenay Foundry and is under license in Europe.
While Saguenay Foundry was perfecting its patternless prototyping system, it also watched for the next opportunity. With one of its two pattern suppliers closing and the other with an aging owner and no one waiting in the wings, the iron caster saw a potential supply problem looming.
“I strongly believe the pattern shops that ultimately will be left are all going to be CNC operated,” Savard said. “The true skill people will be retired. Few real patternmakers will be left who know the foundry process. So us being in the process, it is easy for us to design the patterns, and I think it will give us a nice competitive edge in three to five years.”
Within the metalcasting building, Foundry Saguenay expanded its traditional pattern shop to take on more than just repair work. In 2015 it also invested $2 million in a new building on the same land to house CNC equipment to further extend its capabilities for rapid prototyping work. This equipment can machine foam or MDF patterns for quick part development and turnaround.
“Everything is moving toward using 3-D drawings and technology,” Savard said. “If engineers are using 3-D, why not use that here in the foundry?”
New machinery. New processes. New disciplines. A few stumbles were inevitable.
“Two major issues hurt us this spring,” Savard said. “The way we processed the work scheduling wasn’t efficient, so many of the jobs came all at once. We weren’t processing fast enough. We also realized that bringing patternmaking in-house took away a barrier of quality control, so there was some slippage in the quality.”
Saguenay Foundry brought in an outside consultant to help with finding a more optimal way of running that department and incorporating it into the rest of the business’s operations. The reorganization improved job scheduling, which opened up capacity. Jobs no longer pile up to be addressed all at once. The machines are now running 80% of the time. The metalcaster also hired more technicians for quality control and to operate the CNC shop. Additional training is ongoing to increase the knowledge in that department.
“We are 200% better than we were four months ago. Today we want to be good but tomorrow we want to be great,” Savard said. “We have learned a lot from our mistakes, and it was a necessary step to become a one-stop shop for our casting buyers in the next three to four years.”
The company continues to fine-tune its CNC operation and explore additional ways to control the process, such as incorporating a foam recycling unit onsite.
“It makes sense from a cost standpoint, and we of course want to think about the environmental footprint,” Savard said.
The rapid prototyping and short volume niche has been an important one for the iron casting facility. It protected the company from a significant downturn during the recession—sales were down just 6%—and it came back quickly as growth has continued. According to Savard, Saguenay Foundry has grown in sales by 25% in the last two to three years.
“We are innovative and want to make solid and steady growth and keep our relationships with customers for a long time,” Savard said. “We like to choose good customers and take care of them.”
In 2010, 3-D technology was used for zero of Saguenay Foundry’s operations. Now it accounts for 25% of business. But the company doesn’t want to be caught doing only one or two parts at a time. It needs a certain volume to continue. “Seventy-five percent of our production goes to legacy or production parts,” Savard said. “We can’t have a foundry this size without that. We want to grow more in that area, as well.”
When a big piece of machinery, such as one used in an aluminum smelter, goes down from a worn-out casting, the quick replacement of that part is critical. These legacy parts are where Saguenay Foundry sees itself as a top-tier supplier. “We can turn around castings in a week,” Savard said. “If a customer’s machine breaks down, we can handle those emergencies.”
Not all of its production volume customers have a need for Saguenay Foundry’s 3-D technologies, but it works to attract new customers and serve as an indication that the company is progressive and forward-thinking.
“Our customers are really aware of these technologies and most of them are savvy,” Rouleau said. “The smaller corporations, who are also good customers, might require more of a teaching moment, but they see what it means for them on the engineering and economic side.”
Savard hopes the company’s innovative mentality goes on. The company has been keeping an eye on how the printing technology has evolved over the last few years. Because Saguenay Foundry produces large parts, the machinery has not been economical. But that could be changing as printers get bigger.
“We try to stay on the cutting edge of technology,” Savard said. “We do a lot of technology watching.”
Click here to see this story as it appears in Global Casting.