Robotics, technology fuel Waupaca Foundry success

The foundry of the future is already in operation at Waupaca Foundry. The industry refers to the shift as “Foundry 4.0,” and for Waupaca Foundry, it is about creating the next-generation foundry that re-engineers the metal casting process to maintain quality, efficiency, and worker health and safety. 

Waupaca Foundry is the nation’s largest manufacturer of iron components, operating eight foundries and machining operations across the United States. The firm employs 4,300 people and casts iron parts for customers in the automotive, off-highway, commercial vehicle and industrial sectors.

Melting metal into durable goods is one of the oldest industries in the world, but this forward-thinking operation has been planning for industrial life beyond 2020 for decades.

“Our commitment to automation and technology started 30 years ago to meet customers’ exacting quality demands,” said Waupaca Foundry CEO Mike Nikolai. “We needed a solution that involved meeting extremely tight tolerances at a very high volume.” 

To that end, the company embarked on a corporate-wide risk reduction program in 2017 featuring continual improvement initiatives designed to evolve the production process and improve safety. Waupaca Foundry has invested $53 million from fiscal 2019 through fiscal 2021 to upgrade robotics systems in all of its foundries. Across all facilities, approximately 135 robots help create the company’s gray, ductile, austempered ductile and HNM™ Series high-strength ductile iron castings.

The most significant technology expansion was opening a machining plant in Waupaca in 2019. The 50,000-square-foot facility features robotics at every stop in the machining function and uses automated guided vehicles for transferring parts, robotic CNC lathes that trim parts, and robots that pack and unpack parts. 

In addition, plants in Waupaca and Tell City, Ind., have had technology improvements in their core rooms and mill rooms using robotics to produce cores, and to clean and finish castings. 

The driver is not technology for technology’s sake, but innovation to meet customer demand and improve the workplace. High-volume production requires the ability to replicate quality and extreme tolerances — often a task that can’t be duplicated by humans. Robotics and automation are precise and repeatable. 

A primary benefit of automation is to increase safety for workers because robotics reduce repetitive tasks and help to improve worker ergonomics. The robots do the heavy lifting, and the nature of work in the foundry is reimagined. 

In addition to robotics, Waupaca Foundry is an industry leader in sustainability innovation that includes a formal management system approach to energy reduction. Under the systemic approach, leaders can gather and analyze data that identifies opportunities for additional energy reduction in plant operations. As compared to 2010, Waupaca was able to achieve an overall reduction in energy consumption of nearly 25 percent at all U.S. plants. Energy is one of the largest costs of manufacturing, with an annual price tag of about $150 million in fiscal year 2019 across all Waupaca Foundry locations. 

“We are setting the pace in our industry by committing to continuous improvement in environmental sustainability by reducing our energy use,” Nikolai said. “Our efforts not only reduce our impact on the environment but make us a more competitive iron castings supplier in the global marketplace.” 

Company: Waupaca Foundry
Innovation: Foundry 4.0

To view the entire 2021 Champions of Innovation edition, please click here.