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Shaping the future of the foundry industry

By Alex Lawton

As I mentioned in a previous article about the challenges we face in the industry, the problems we are working to solve now are what’s going to shape the future of this industry. As we find solutions to the workforce, political, and environmental issues we face today, we prepare ourselves to overcome even greater obstacles in the future. In the middle of every obstacle is an opportunity and opportunity embodies everything the future holds.

I talked a lot in the previous article about how we’ve revamped our training because we’re trying to cope with the rapidly-changing workforce that’s only going to continue to change as we move into the future.

In one to five years, some of the people who have dedicated their lives to the trade are going to be retiring. They have all this expertise that they’ve developed over the years, and now we need to bring people in fast. We need to make sure we can keep doing our thing and progressing even though those experienced people won’t be here anymore. That’s why standard work and training are so important to us now.

We used to have a bunch of people who had been here 20 to 30 years who had ample knowledge to pass onto new employees. Now there is only a handful of guys left who have been here that long. The rest of our workers have only been here an average of 2 to 3 years. That’s why it’s really important to redesign our training and standard work to make these processes easier to teach. We want to make sure this happens efficiently, without overwhelming the experts we have left.

Before we worked on our training and standard work, the thought crossed my mind: “There might be some things we make today that we won’t be able to do in the future once the masters retire.” That’s not as much of a concern today, thanks to the progress we’ve already made in updating our training, standardizing our processes and continuously improving our engineering.

Our workforce today is younger than ever and they have less experience under their belt. They aren’t as motivated to stay and gain that experience, either. The future of our industry is about solving those problems, and I think technology, training, standardization and engineering are going to play big roles in being the solution to that problem.

Because The C.A. Lawton Co. is so deeply focused on continuous improvement, I think we’ll do really well, no matter what happens with the economy and our industry.

Digitizing and automating parts of our production process will play a huge role in increasing our productivity. We make large castings that are relatively complex and aren’t well-suited to automation. But there are some areas of the process that can be automated. One example is robotic grinding in the cleaning room. These machines would have to be set up to work on a standard part with a standard shape. But if we can figure that out, that sort of technology would probably take the place of three or four people.

Another application for technology is robotic milling, which is really similar to the routers used on foam, wood and plastic in pattern shops today. According to a blog post on the RobotWorx website, robotic milling is the process of cutting material away from a prototype or mold to form a specific structure based on a CAD drawing. Milling robots can perform the exact cuts and precise movements needed to produce the highest quality parts by using flexible tooling. Any object of any size or shape can be milled by simply adjusting the robot programming and end-of-arm-tooling.

This could be useful in cases when a pattern a customer sends to us isn’t in the best condition. You can create a design for the core and robo-mill a new one instead of repairing the tooling. This wouldn’t replace all pattern work, but this technology could save time and can augment what our people can do.

People tend to think technology is going to move a lot faster than it actually does. They think that in three years, we will have a foundry full of robots, but that’s not realistic. Technology is going to play a role, but I think for a long time we’re still going to need the right people to get the jobs done. That goes back to the importance of improving training – because technology will never solve all our problems.

Another big topic recently has been sustainability. Even before it became a buzzword, I started our people focusing on something I call “beyond compliance.” My goal has been to understand compliance, which is everything we need to do to be safe, environmentally friendly, and to meet health and quality standards, and then figure out how to go just beyond that.

How we do that is to figure out what the next step is in evolving regulations. If we can see something else is going to be required, we try to be proactive and meet those standards before they become law. We also look at regulations from a value standpoint and see if we can do any more in the lanes of those regulations that are in alignment with the values of our company, employees, owners and customers. We then take proactive steps based on that.

Being in this sort of forward-moving mindset actually makes it much easier for us to be ready when the regulations do change.

When sustainability became a more widespread idea, we didn’t struggle with it conceptually. We were very prepared to start making it a part of what we’re doing. We’re not experts, but it’s something we are working towards. As we do, we try to keep that “beyond compliance” mindset: How can we go one step beyond what’s required? What do our customers, employees and the community value? Then we try to take action based on those values.

We’ve also been lucky enough to have people around us, some of our customers that we can borrow ideas from to improve ourselves. For many companies, putting together the initial program or plan is the hardest part. The ability to compare notes with these customers and adapt some of their ideas has been great. When we can get some of these things from our customers, it’s really valuable.

Being a part of things like Wisconsin’s Green Tier program also pushes us to continuously do better and will help us further our growth in sustainability into the future. Many companies today have green goals and plans that bring them all the way out to 2030. From that alone, you can see that sustainability is going to be a big part of the future of this industry and business in general. It’s a very positive trend, and I welcome it.

Another important thing that has kind of come hand-in-hand with sustainability is the idea of diversity and inclusivity, which I fully support. It was never something we were against, it just wasn’t something we were necessarily focused on. We just hadn’t traditionally had a lot of women working for Lawton. We just didn’t know how to get their attention and put out the message that it as long as you can do what’s required of the job, come to work on time and are willing to learn, you’re a great candidate to join us at Lawton.

I believe in the wisdom of crowds, and I believe the more diverse the crowd is, the more wisdom you have. That’s why diversity is something really I want to work on.

We have already taken some strides with some of the content we’re creating in our blog. We’re trying to cater to some different audiences, and hopefully, they’ll give us a chance and consider working for Lawton. We also have women working on the floor now. We have the group from Puerto Rico, we have women in management positions as well, but all of that just kind of happened naturally.

When it comes to growing our diversity, I still really like “beyond compliance” as a way to describe what want to do here, because it really does encapsulate everything I believe in. Whether it be quality or diversity or sustainability, the goal is always trying to go one step further than what we’re supposed to do. That’s our plan of attack going forward.

Overall, I think the future is growing out of everything we’re doing right now, everything that’s going on today at Lawton. I think we’re on the right track as a company. I think the industry as a whole is, too. We just need to keep embracing these new ideas, solving problems, and continuously improving to design the future we want to see.

Works Cited

Dimitrijevic, Ivan. “How Technology Is Changing Manufacturing and Its Workforce.” Tech. Accessed August 09, 2019. https://it.toolbox.com/blogs/ivandimitrijevic/how-technology-is-changing-manufacturing-and-its-workforce-072617.

Leary, Nora. “How Technology Is Changing Manufacturing and Its Workforce.” Reliable Plant. March 02, 2016. Accessed August 09, 2019. https://www.reliableplant.com/Read/30423/technology-changing-manufacturing.

“Milling Robots.” RobotWorx. Accessed August 09, 2019. https://www.robots.com/applications/milling.

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