Made in Milwaukee: Reworked facility improves lead times for Stainless Foundry & Engineering

Investment castings are poured at Stainless Foundry & Engineering.
Investment castings are poured at Stainless Foundry & Engineering.

Last updated on March 4th, 2020 at 10:31 am

For almost any business, having a backlog of future orders comes with a sense of security that there will be work to do when the current job is done. This is especially true in the foundry industry, said Jim Stachowiak, president and chief executive officer of Stainless Foundry and Engineering Inc.

About 70% of Stainless’ customers are in the pump and valve markets, with components going into the food and dairy, nuclear, chemical and oil and gas industries. Customers might understand some lead time for their parts, but as the wait starts to creep up toward 12 or 14 weeks, suppliers in India and China start looking a lot more appealing.

“What they’re telling me they’re paying wouldn’t even cover the cost of the metal that we’re buying to put into that particular product,” he said, noting foreign competition forced Stainless to take a closer look at its operations.

But Stainless, which started as a one-room sand foundry in 1946, also had a fundamental problem when it came to improving lead times and overall efficiency. Like many manufacturers, its facility on Milwaukee’s northwest side has been added onto and expanded a number of times.

“You kind of end up with a really poor flow because it wasn’t designed for the efficiency,” Stachowiak said.

A new facility wasn’t an option because of the cost and risk associated with moving foundry equipment. Instead, Stainless worked with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership starting in mid-2018 to first map out what its current operations looked like and then design a future state for the facility.

Among the issues the project identified was parts waiting for their next operation and in some cases traveling a couple miles throughout the facility during processing, especially if the parts went to an outside vendor for heat-treating and then returned for more processing.

To address those problems, Stainless made space in its shipping and receiving area and invested in additional equipment. Now, parts that go out to vendors won’t have to go back into the main foundry for additional work.

Stainless also cross-trained employees on multiple operations and worked to reduce the size of part batches.

“In the foundry world, because of our furnaces, we want to maximize the amount of metal we’re putting in the furnace and maximize the number of parts we’re producing, which makes great sense from a cost perspective, but once you do that, running all those parts together in big batches really doesn’t help the efficiencies and throughput,” Stachowiak said.

The idea now is to produce parts in batches through the furnace and then allow for single-piece flow through the rest of the process. The result is employees might spend a few hours each on two or three different operations during a day instead of doing one thing all day.

The company spent about six months on the initial planning and three more months vetting the plans to make sure the new material flow would work and evaluating the cost of new equipment. The result has been a drop in lead times from eight to 10 weeks down to around six weeks. Stainless has additional projects planned to push that number even lower.

Stachowiak said Stainless has also worked for the past several years to develop a more collaborative culture.

“It requires an awful lot of patience, as you go through these, you start making some of the changes, you start giving the people the authority to start making some decisions, you start expanding the box in which they’re allowed to make those decisions and you start seeing some great progress and then all of the sudden a month later it goes right back the other way,” he said. “It can be frustrating, but you can’t let it frustrate you … A lot of it is creating opportunities where employees feel safe that they can take the risk, that if they make a bad decision, they’re not going to lose their job … What’s important to me is that we understand why the decision turned out to be poor and that we’re doing something to correct it.”

Stainless Foundry & Engineering Inc.

5110 N. 35th St., Milwaukee
INDUSTRY: Investment and sand castings

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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