How to find the right foundry for military work
Few foundries take on defense contractor-related work. It’s easy to see why.
“The requirements for suppliers are pretty intense,” explains Jesse Milks, president of State Line Foundries, which pours iron castings for a variety of military products.
Milks says the specifications provide a point of comparison between castings destined for military versus private-sector applications. “With typical industrial castings, the list of specifications might be two or three lines on a blueprint,” he offers. “With government RFQs, there can be 20 to 30.”
Milks takes pride in meeting the challenges that military work brings to the company. Successfully completing it means sweating the details. It means having proven processes and sticking to them every step of the way. And it means being exceptionally good at making castings of all shapes and sizes – with rare alloys, too.
How can manufacturers ensure they find a partner that can meet these high standards? State Line’s experience with such castings gives Milks a unique perspective. He advises manufacturers to search for a foundry with six specific qualities.
Key quality #1: A foundry with consistency
Military work demands exceptional casting quality and attention to detail. Suffice it to say that a foundry that’s sloppy with routine work is unlikely to suddenly meet higher standards if they’re given a government contract.
A buyer should examine a prospect’s non-military castings to get a sense of the quality it delivers. “All of our products are comparable in terms of quality, whether we’re selling to John the farmer down the road or the biggest defense contractors,” Milks states. “We treat everyone the same.”
When you strip everything away, it’s all about making quality castings – period.
Key quality #2: A foundry with versatility
It can be difficult for manufacturers to find foundries that are capable and willing to handle the complex specifications of military castings. Manufacturers can eliminate a lot of searching if they can find a single source that can handle its diverse orders.
“We’re willing to make low-volume, complex castings that most other foundries aren’t interested in,” Milks emphasizes. There may be specifications or alloys that are unique to those castings. State Line Foundries, with its ability to handle small batch sizes, can efficiently manage those needs.
State Line’s military castings range in size from a few pounds to more than a ton. It also works with a variety of alloys as needed. That versatility means manufacturers can simply place a larger percentage of its orders with State Line, rather than hunting for another source.
Key quality #3: A modern foundry with expertise
State Line behaves like a smaller business when offering specialized services. It acts like a bigger operation in other ways.
“We have all of the equipment and processes in place here that the best-of-the-best foundries in the country have,” Milks details.
State Line’s expertise is showcased in the wide range of alloys it pours. “We handle an array of iron alloys including ADI (Austempered Ductile Iron) and utilize specialized processes to make some pretty tough castings,” Milks explains. “We expect that our material certifications will be scrutinized by the end user, so it’s imperative to be precise with our alloying.”
The key to its expertise is equipment and experience. “Some foundries don’t have all the equipment and procedures in place,” Milks says. “It takes continued reinvestment in our people, equipment and procedures to keep up with the high standards that military work requires.”
As for personnel, “We have people who are highly skilled and trained, who have worked with us for many years.”
Key quality #4: A foundry that communicates often and effectively
Earning the trust of a new customer takes time, but confidence can be gained before the pouring starts.
“There’s value in having the customer visit our facility and review our processes,” Milks offers. “They review our quality checks and look at castings that are similar to what they want produced. We have multiple conversations about their castings and how we can make them.” The last thing a contractor wants to do is choose a foundry that can’t produce to the required specifications.
It can be very advantageous for a contractor to engage the foundry early on during the casting design phase. That’s the best time to eliminate future problem areas and to find ways to reduce cost. “Even if it’s an existing casting with tooling that needs to be transferred to us, there needs to be many conversations about past experiences and future expectations in order to have success early and often,” Milks adds.
Key quality #5: A foundry that sticks to the specs
Attention to detail matters given the quality demands and the intensity of the inspections.
“There’s no going outside the boundaries,” Milks explains. “There’s no ‘close enough.’ It’s black and white. Anything off the blueprint is rejected.”
Some of the specifications can be a challenge – and a bit frustrating, too. “The spec or even some of the materials being used might be dated,” Milks states. “Because it’s a proven casting, they don’t want to change anything, even if there’s a better way of doing it.”
That means the foundry must accept and adapt. “Getting approval to change a specification is quite challenging and usually requires a lengthy process,” Milks points out, so he rarely pursues such action. “You have to know how to make it work with what you’re given.”
Key quality #6: A foundry that already handles military work
Some foundries, including State Line, are producing castings for the military. A manufacturer can learn a great deal by taking a close look at this work.
There are essentially three categories of castings State Line produces for military applications. They range from complicated to relatively simple.
Castings for hydraulic components fall into the complicated category. The end products include steering mechanisms on Humvees, tanks and other military vehicles.
“These types of castings are highly cored,” Milks says. The cores must create the complex passageways that will route the hydraulic fluid. And the results must be nothing short of perfect.
“They need to be porosity free – there can be absolutely no defect,” Milks states. “If you’re pumping hydraulic fluid at high pressures, you can’t have any voids in the castings.”
The finished products must also be exceptionally clean. “Any metal or sand scrap can damage the hydraulic units,” Milks explains. “These parts have some unique challenges in terms of coring and cleaning.”
The second category consists of castings for clutch and brake systems on military vehicles. These parts are also used in rear differential components as well as the structure beneath the vehicle.
“They range in size from a few pounds to 2,500 pounds,” Milks says. “Some of them have unique alloy requirements that are specific to that customer and that casting.”
Not many foundries will handle these unique alloy requirements. “It can be difficult,” Milks states. “You’re only pouring that alloy for a single part number. Our flexibility allows us to take on these types of short-run projects.”
The least challenging government castings are used in power generation. These parts include motor housings and covers, gears, axles, and transmission cases. They are often used in naval propulsion system components.
“All these castings are used in extremely rugged conditions, whether on a tank, a Humvee or a ship,” Milks details. “People are relying on these components to last in the harshest environments. You can’t afford a failure in the field. That’s why they’re tested to the Nth degree.”
Manufacturers that follow these recommendations will be well on their way to finding a foundry that can help them keep the promises they made to their military customers.
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