NEW FOUNDRY POURS FIRST HEAT – That’s the headline readers couldn’t help but notice right on the front page of The Latrobe Bulletin on Thursday, Feb. 2, 1933, about the Pennsylvania town’s newest business, Latrobe Foundry Machine and Supply Co.
“Louis C. Steiner, president and general manager, is personally in direct charge of pouring the first heat today and will continue to oversee all plant operations, at the same time contacting customers for new business,” the article states.
Steiner came to the United States with his parents from Budapest in 1901 as a 4-year-old. He left school in the 8th grade and started working in the steel industry in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and eventually became a general manager of a foundry in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
By the early years of the Great Depression, Steiner, 35 at the time, figured he could do better. After finding a partner, Steiner set up shop in his company’s namesake town.
According to the newspaper, about a dozen men were on the job making the company’s first order of 1,500 castings for a local tool and die company.
“Company officials say they have orders on the books to insure two days a week operation throughout February and that additional business of a worthwhile character and volume is in sight,” the article says.
85 years later
That day was a good start. Eight-five years later, the number of days a week of operation are longer and the additional business is a little different, but certainly still of a worthwhile character and volume. And what most people simply know today as Latrobe Foundry is still a Steiner family business.
“He started out doing mainly maintenance castings for other companies that would need to keep their operations running,” says Louis T. Steiner, president, Latrobe Foundry and Louis C.’s grandson. “That way he’d be working with big companies rather than go against them.”
Louis, who goes by Ted, joined his father, Louis A. Steiner, in 2005 after spending 20 years in the banking business, which, at the time, was another business venture for the family. Currently, family management also includes Ted’s sisters, Sally Shirey, vice president, who joined in 1979; and Ann Holmes, vice president, who also joined in 2005.
Plus, Ted’s son, Michael Steiner, vice president, represents the family’s fourth generation. He joined the business in 2014 after going through Ferguson Enterprises’ vaunted management training program, working in credit operations at the distributor’s Philadelphia office for four years.
For much of its history, Latrobe Foundry produced cast-iron and steel products. But in the 1960s, the foundry diversified into aluminum castings. Since the 1980s, as the steel industry crashed and many of Latrobe’s customers for that product went out of business, the company has focused entirely on aluminum production.
Today, the foundry manufactures and machines threaded and flanged aluminum pipefittings in numerous stock sizes and styles, including both standard and reducing fittings for not just the plumbing and piping industry, but also for the agricultural, chemical and marine markets.
In addition to its standard fitting product lines, the company has the capability to manufacture special-order aluminum castings, too.
“Aluminum is a niche market, unlike copper or steel, with very specific applications,” Michael says. “But we try to cover all corners of that niche market.”
Quality and speed
Most of Latrobe’s competitors for aluminum products are in China. The product carries a less expensive price tag than Latrobe’s, but quality is a major concern. As a result, most buyers of Chinese aluminum products have to settle on purchasing, say, a skid of 200 pieces to obtain 150 of decent quality. Plus, buyers must pay in advance and then wait three to six months for the shipment to arrive.
To ensure the quality of its product, Latrobe has made a number of strides in the last decade or so – not the least of which entailed shutting down operations for three months in 2012 in order to retool its processes and procedures. Most of these leaps in quality, largely resulting from moving from traditional manual processes to automatic methods in the molding process as well as machining operations, also greatly sped up getting orders to Latrobe customers.
“The product was good,” Michael adds. “The customer base was there. We just needed to get everything to the customer faster and more consistently, Investment in technology was the best way to achieve it.”
Before discussing these improvements, it helps to understand the sand casting process Latrobe uses to make its aluminum products. Sand casting uses a pattern made from either metal or wood to create a negative impression within a special type of sand.
This “green” sand isn’t called that due to the color, but rather, like green wood, the sand contains a certain level of moisture. The mold is then filled with molten aluminum that is left to cool and solidify. Once the aluminum has solidified, the sand mold is cracked and the aluminum needs to be further machined to make it a finished product.
“With sand casting, if the weather is different from morning to afternoon, we need to tweak the moisture level of the sand and how long we mix the sand,” Michael explains. “It’s border line art and science.”
It’s also admittedly old school, particularly when the molding processes is done the traditional manual or “squeezer” way of producing aluminum products. But the automatic processes also hold their own challenges.
Add to this temperamental process the somewhat unpredictable nature of Latrobe’s customers’ buying habits and you can see why quality and speed are the keys to what the company does.
“If our customer’s crystal ball is cracked,” Ted says, “ours is busted.”
What he means is that while the company tracks order history and can confidently forecast that they will sell, say, 10,000 flanges to customers, sometimes that can be all in the first quarter ... or the fourth … or spread out during the year. So, the foundry has to be nimble enough to essentially make those flanges seemingly at a moment’s notice and then stop and make 2-inch couplings.
One of the company’s first moves to ensure quality didn’t have anything to do with machinery, but with the purchase in the late-1990s of an outside company that handled machining operations for the foundry.
“We now control everything from melting the ingot through the machining, which helps with quality control,” Ted explains.
But much bigger changes were in store.
“You have to take a big gulp and say all this investment will be worth it,” Michael adds. “But even when you say that, you know there are no guarantees.”
On the molding side, the company purchased in 2012 new equipment to help speed up the process, such as an automatic molding machine and an automatic sand-handling line that replaced the need to shovel heavy sand by hand.
“Where it really helped us was if we are running flanges without a core it would take a squeezer operator 2-3 minutes to do one mold,” Ted explains. “The automatic molding machine can do it in about 45 seconds.”
Larger pieces, such as a 4-inch, 90-degree elbow, that took 10-15 minutes to prepare manually, now take a minute and a half.
Instead of a settling on a couple hundred molds a day, the company could easily double even triple that figure.
The new setup also allows the company to do multiple products in one heat.
“We could do flanges, elbows and caps,” Ted says, “whereas we used to only do all caps and then change around to do elbows. The same with flanges. It dramatically sped up the process.”
In addition to the molding process, the foundry made improvements in the machine shop, too.
A CNC vertical machining center, for example, allows the company to perform more operations simultaneously vs. a traditional mill or tapping machine that takes care of just one step at a time.
“Think of a 1/2 -inch, 90-degree elbow,” Michael explains. “We used to have one guy at one machine hook up one piece at a time to bore it out. To thread, required another guy at another machine. Maybe we ran 400 pieces in one run. Now we do all that on the CNC and load up as many as 32 pieces at a time.”
A final bit of improvement isn’t found in the molding or machining facilities, but right outside Ted and Michael’s offices.
A 3D printer can easily turn out prototypes for custom work, but more importantly, can be used to make the company’s patterns required for the casting process.
The purchase came on the heels of the news that the foundry’s plant manager who was also the pattern maker was going to retire after 42 years.
“His father and uncle also worked in the 1930s,” Ted says. “So, out of the 85 years the company has been in business, the family was here for 80 of those years.”
The pattern is all-important to the process. Basically without the pattern, you’d have a block of useless sand. Traditionally, the patterns were painstakingly done by hand, the industrial equivalent of artwork.
But pattern making isn’t a skill many people are likely to learn these days. So, the company hired an intern from a local college’s computer science program who has since joined full-time to begin the process of converting the patterns for the next 85 years for Latrobe.
“What matters to us isn’t measured so much in terms of whether we make hundreds of thousands of this or that, ” Ted adds. “Our measure is the scrap rate.”
By that, he means defective product that isn’t necessarily thrown away, but re-melted and used again – after every cost involved in production has been literally and figuratively poured into it.
“It could be too much gas in the molding process so that bubbles form on the face of the flange, which would impact the structure integrity,” Michael says. “Or the metal didn’t flow right so you got half a piece.”
Once the new processes were down pat, the company scrap rate fell from 14 percent to under 4 percent.
Technology can go along way, but the personal touch still counts for a lot, too.
“Anyone in the process here can pull a piece if they don’t think something’s right,” Ted says. “From shaking out the sand, cutting away excess metal, grinding it, when it goes to the machine shop, when it get degreased, to shipping – each of our products are touched six times.”
At the same time, the company cut its lead-time to make product, which was running as high as 30 weeks using the old ways.
“The reason we had to invest in new technology and go to automatic processes was to decide what we wanted our future to be,” Ted says. “The future was either to thrive or lose customers.”
While much of our feature focuses on technology, the company has also fine-tuned other aspects of its sales and marketing operations.
Michael’s training at Ferguson comes in handy.
“You learn and absorb so much that you can go into any business,” Michael adds. “We might not be a $13 billion company, but if Ferguson did it this way, is there a way we could scale that?”