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Copper & Brass
Friday | 03 September, 2010 | 6:38 am

Modern foundry

By Lauren Duensing

August 2010- The recent construction of a state-of-the-art foundry by Houston-based National Bronze & Metals can be summed up with three words: clean, green and lean. The upgrades to the Lorain, Ohio, facility’s everyday working conditions are so dramatic that Norman Lazarus, senior vice president, points out the atmosphere is more akin to that of a shopping mall.

"After running our old foundry on this property for about 10 years, we could recognize some of the things we wanted to change," says Lazarus. "It was a key goal to improve the working conditions and have the best environment possible for our workers--not only the guys doing the casting but also the general manager and anybody that walks into the facility. With no smoke, no lead and an overall clean operation, people can come in here and work very easily."

national bronze and metalsThe upgrades focused on a completely new way of thinking. Lazarus has been in the industry since 1976 and, along with Michael Greathead, company president, has visited many foundries and manufacturers of equipment all over the world.

"With this facility, what we tried to do is incorporate the best from different foundries, put it all together and try to build an even better foundry than what we’ve seen in the past," Lazarus says.

The construction business
In 1997, NBM bought the property where the current foundry sits today. "We had looked at being involved in manufacturing for several years, but I had never found a location that was suitable," Lazarus says. The Lorain location fit the bill and gave NBM "a nice introduction to the Midwest and Northeast markets and even further north into Canada."

The company has been a master distributor of brass, bronze and copper bar since 1983. "We did things a little bit backward," Lazarus says. "We went from distribution into manufacturing. Most of the time, companies go from manufacturing into distribution."

He stresses, "distribution is still our specialty. We have expanded our warehouse in Lorain to about 58,000 square feet and intend to facilitate quick requirements out of inventory. For our production runs, we intend to produce 2,000 pounds as a minimum order, but we will stock hundreds of standard sizes. We’ve added many new products over the last several years and have more than 90 different brass, bronze and copper alloys in our inventory at any given time.

"In excess of 70 percent of our business goes through metal service centers," Lazarus says. "We’re exporting all over the world, not only to service centers here in North America but also in Canada, south of the border from Mexico to Peru, Brazil, Chile, Central America, South America, Europe, and into the Middle East, Asia and Africa."

The recently completed construction is the second facelift for the Lorain facility. Shortly after NBM purchased the property, the company put in all-new equipment. However, Lazarus says it was a low-budget strategy, simply to see if the facility could perform.

"We found out after about five or six years of operating that we were running at full capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, three weeks at a time," he says. "We literally ran equipment into the ground after about six years. At that point in time, we decided we couldn’t operate like this. We were either going to have to shut the operation down, buy out another operation or build a new facility. The groundwork for the new facility was laid in 2006. We started working from there, and the new facility was built in four stages because the old facility was still producing during construction."

Lazarus jokes he’s been in the construction business for the last six or seven years because of the continued growth of both the Houston and Lorain locations. "I decided when we built this foundry that I wanted to eliminate that as much as possible. So this foundry was built with the ability to expand. The foundations have been laid, the power is available, the water is available, everything is available to allow us to double our capacity very quickly, efficiently and easily. Beyond that, the buildings themselves have been designed in such a manner that we can also expand them very easily and efficiently."

Phase one of the construction has been completed, and, depending on the production runs, the plant’s current capacity of 1.5 million pounds dwarfs the previous average of about 500,000 pounds. "At this facility, we make 50-plus alloys, and we’re adding new alloys all the time," Lazarus says. "In the last six months, we’ve probably added half a dozen.

"Over the last 10 years, there’s been a tremendous shake-up in the copper, brass and bronze industry," he continues. "Many companies have either been gobbled up, taken over or shut down, which has created quite significant voids. We intend to fill a lot of those voids not only with products that customers used to buy but also improved-upon products that they used to buy in the past."

High-tech, high-quality
NBM executives have big plans for the new foundry. The state-of-the-art casters can achieve a level of consistency the company needs to achieve NADCAP certification, a global cooperative standards-setting program for aerospace engineering, defense and related industries.

"Ultimately, the customer is looking for a superior product, and whoever has that superior product will be the leader," says João Saraiva, general manager. "When we looked at the expansion, we wanted to get the best in terms of the cooling configuration and the design. There is no better process control money can buy. Even down to the quality of our saws--there are no better saws money can buy. From the safety of the staff to the entire complex, we just had to have the best. And you can see that in the end product."

The new furnaces are monitored by computers, which record readings and monitor processes. "It’s critical to ensure consistency in temperature throughout the dies," Saraiva says.

"When a staff member takes a reading from the thermocouple, we record it. If a staff member doesn’t take the temperature within two or three hours, we have the technology to see the data and ask the staff member, ‘Why wasn’t the temperature taken?’ All of the data is being collected to a central point so multiple staff members and management have access to it."

Another goal for the new foundry is to achieve ISO 14001 certification, which gives the requirements for environmental management systems. The company is already ISO 9001 certified. In an effort to meet the standard, all graphite, broken crucibles, tooling from the die shop, EDM wire, cardboard and paper are recycled. The facility also is committed to efficient power use.

"In the new warehouse and multiple other buildings, we’ve gone to a T5 bulb, which conserves 53 percent more energy than normal metal halide," Saraiva says.

The facility also recycles hot water from all its processes, which results in a lower impact on the use of natural gas, as well as no discharge--other than a small amount of evaporation in the summer.

"Typically, that burner system can burn up to 7 million BTUs an hour," Saraiva points out. "When we’re in full production like we are right now with one caster still outstanding to be commissioned, we’re going to recover in excess of 3.8 million BTUs, making us much less dependent on natural gas."

Expansion in a down economy
Although opening a state-of-the-art facility in an economic downturn can cause some sleepless nights, Lazarus was never nervous about the success of the operation. In fact, he says NBM now is positioned to ride the market’s upswing.

"In 2006, 2007 and 2008, business was booming. We were having record month after record month, and the company had really grown. The original plans were that this new facility would open in July 2009. Because of what happened in late 2008, we basically slowed down the process by several months and really only started producing in this plant the first of the year, although we started to do some test runs on the equipment prior to that in December. We have slowly been commissioning all the equipment over the last few months.

"I am very much of the opinion that if we have the best product available, the best quality available and the ability to deliver on time, we will gain market share. We have done so already and will continue to do so at an accelerated basis as we move forward over the next 24 months." MM

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