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Copper & Brass
Tuesday | 16 August, 2016 | 2:01 pm

Experience matters

By Corinna Petry

Extruder gets down to brass tacks by creating new alloys, taking on the what-ifs

August 2016 - What do you do if you run a company that’s nearly a century old and demand for your traditional product has fallen by half over the past 15 years? There are many options, actually. But the leaders of Chicago Extruded Metals Inc. (CXM) in Cicero, Illinois, decided a reinvention was required—one that earned the support from ownership and from the production staff to make it work.

In its 200,000-square-foot integrated manufacturing plant, CXM employs horizontal continuous casting and extrudes brass rod, bar and wire by using an indirect press, which allows for defect-free finishes. The company performs its own heat treating and its in-house, proprietary die and tooling capabilities combine CAD/CAM with Wire EDM to provide fast turnaround of design and prototype development. A full laboratory supports CXM’s manufacturing process and customer certification requirements. CXM brass meets or exceeds aerospace and other industry standards.

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Extruding product through a cold draw or finishing die reduces cross section to obtain precise geometric tolerances.

The process

Smelting begins the process. CXM combines virgin and recycled metals in its furnaces. Cast billets are subjected to spectroscopy and atomic absorption spectrophotometer testing during the melt and after solidification to certify chemistries and as-cast properties.

Next, indirect extrusion produces defect-free material in coil or length forms. The extruded material is then pickled to prepare the surface for cold working. Pulling the extruded product through a cold draw or finishing die reduces the cross-section to obtain precise geometric tolerances. Surface quality, straightness, machinability and mechanical properties are improved or increased. CXM will also straighten, anneal and reduce sizes and saw bars to length and cut coils to weight. 

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CXM built a new foundry to produce aluminum bronzes and other custom alloys, offsetting a decline in brass demand.

Development

Right from its beginning in 1922, Chicago Extruded Metals built a reputation by developing specific products for specific applications for specific customers, says President and CEO Patrick Balson.

Since he joined the company in 2003, it has persevered through volatile cycles, including the Great Recession. “We survived exceedingly well. We are now reinventing ourselves by amending capacity for specialty bronzes,” he says. 

CXM produces alloys combining copper with zinc, zinc and lead, zinc and tin (naval brass), with aluminum, with silicon, with copper, nickel and tin (spinodal alloys) and a proprietary range of alloys trademarked as BioBrass.

Until recently, spinodal alloys were impossible to extrude, Balson says, but by its ability to do so, “the company has moved into the aerospace industry and into the very high-performing engines with very technical alloys.”

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Furthermore, “we are the only company in North America that extrudes aluminum bronze.” Many users were long compelled to import aluminum bronze alloys from France, Britain and Israel “so, as a domestic supplier, we are in an advantaged position.”

Brass/bronze extrusion consumers must sometimes wait 16 to 20 weeks for delivery from offshore. 

In addition, they must typically buy container-loads of the material, each 40,000 pounds. To keep their production lines running, consumers must have one shipping container in stock, one on the water, and one at the producing mill. “What happens if you lose a contract?” Balson asks rhetorically. “This is where a domestic supplier can offer a huge benefit”—delivering the precise quantities needed just in time, thereby saving on freight and eliminating inventory holding costs.

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Balson recalls that CXM was “purely a brass mill, but that market shrunk: Today [demand is] less than half what it was in 2003.” In order to recover from the blow, the company built a new foundry to produce aluminum bronzes and other custom alloys. 

“Our core business continues to grow. But we had a vision that a lot of our naval brasses and others could be used in defense applications, for Screen shot 2016 08 16 at 2.58.01 PMairplane pumps and fuel parts, even in wing flaps,” Balson says.

The company brought in “new types of management skills,” and hired more metallurgists, chemists and technicians but also some people who had come from outside the foundry industry. “They are less focused on tradition, the way things were done, and they generate new what-ifs and ‘can we do this?’”

Expansion strategy

Sometimes one has to go smaller to become larger. It helps to have ample, yet flexible, capacity on an extrusion line. “If you are a brass mill, you might have 80,000 pounds to ship a month” to one customer. CXM, by contrast, will take orders for as little as 1,000 pounds but there is a much higher volume of small orders today. “If you buy only 1,000 pounds a month, you get it,” says Balson. “If you need that much per week, we can do that.”

CXM’s true expansion is in the burgeoning applications it can feed. But the road to successful product development can be long. “For one of the clients we work with, it took nearly two years to develop alloy. We worked with another client for 11 months and it’s already done.” Balson explains: “You have to make the alloy and make sure it can be extruded. Then you design the die—you have to have the expertise to make the right die for the extrusion and for the [cold] drawing. We make our own proprietary dies.”

Tracing quality

CXM has leverage over other suppliers by being an integrated producer. Nothing escapes notice. “Because we do everything in house, when you buy from CXM, you have total traceability,” says Balson. “For some industries this is critical. You are talking exotic alloys and you must have that.” By contrast, “if you buy material from a distributor, [the material] may be more difficult to trace.”

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The company has become more than just an extruder. As a product development center, “there is dialogue between our company and end users.” For example, CXM worked directly with the machinists at an aerospace customer in order to create a product that made it easier for them to utilize. “We are not just interested in selling a bar. We are interested in resolving a problem.” So it is that CXM can manufacture a highly technical, very complex shape that eliminates secondary operations, decreases tooling costs, reduces scrap, and meets and exceeds performance standards and tolerances. And CXM can charge a premium for all that compared with commodity brass.

Service is a key component. If a customer has a problem with an alloy in its production line, CXM can send out a rep to consult with the customer. The longest trip to troubleshoot “can be four hours—we can respond immediately,” Balson says.

What helps secure CXM’s future, he says, is the “terrific support provided by incredible owners. What’s even better is they are keyed in on the welfare of the employees. This helps our company to survive difficult times when the staff knows they have support and the ownership cares about them.”

Between the commitment from the boardroom, savvy leadership and an even savvier customer base, CXM should persist for another 94 years. MM

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