Aluminum Foundries

SIC 3365

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category includes establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing aluminum (including alloys) castings, except die-castings, which are classified in SIC 3363: Aluminum Die-Castings.

Industry Snapshot

Aluminum foundries create castings by pouring heated, liquefied metal into hollowed-out molds. As the molten metal cools, it hardens and assumes the shape created by the mold's cavity. Aluminum foundries typically work with metal purchased in the form of ingots from primary producers or from secondary aluminum recyclers. Some foundries located in close proximity to primary smelters obtain aluminum in molten form.

Aluminum foundry shipments totaled $3.76 billion in 2006, slightly above $3.70 billion in 2005 but a decrease from $4.41 billion in 2000. Employment in the industry dropped from 35,108 in 2000 to 26,565 in 2006.

The largest user of aluminum castings is the automotive industry. The second-largest market for aluminum was in containers and packaging such as food containers, beverage cans, and institutional and household foil. Building and construction were the third-largest market for cast aluminum products.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 447 aluminum foundries in 2008 with 22,424 employees that worked within this industry for all or part of 2008, a decline compared to 26,565 reported in 2006. With 57 establishments, California led the nation in 2008. Ohio had 54 establishments, while Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin each had more than 20 aluminum foundries. The Annual Manufacturers reported that overall shipments for the industry were valued at nearly $5.5 billion in 2009, a decrease from more than $8.1 billion in 2008. Additionally, for the industry total of 26,446 employees worked in production in 2009 (of 33,023 employees), putting in 54 million hours to earn wages of nearly $937 million.

Manufacturers of aluminum castings for the automotive industry remained the largest aluminum consumers accounting for 33 percent. Aluminum used for containers and packaging consumed another 26.1 percent, followed by building and construction that consumed 13.7 percent of aluminum. The electrical market consumed 8.2 percent while machinery and equipment manufacturers consumed 8 percent of aluminum and the consumer durable market consumed 7.1 percent of aluminum.

Background and Development

Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the earth's crust, but it never occurs naturally in isolation. It is a component of many gem stones such as rubies, turquoise, and jade, and it exists in the mineral bauxite. Clays with high aluminum content were used to make pottery in prehistoric times, and aluminum compounds were used by several ancient civilizations as well. The ability to break the chemical bonds between aluminum and other elements to produce the isolated metal was first discovered during the 1800s.

Bauxite, the source for virtually all modern aluminum, was first discovered in Lex Baux, France, in 1821. Advances made during the nineteenth century in chemistry and electrolysis made practical the commercial production of aluminum metal from bauxite. In 1855, aluminum cost $115 per pound, but improvements in chemical production led to price reductions. By 1859, the price had dropped to $17 per pound.

Although falling prices permitted the introduction of some aluminum products such as surgical instruments and novelty items, aluminum was still too expensive to gain widespread industrial use. The most important breakthrough came later in the century when Charles Martin Hall of the United States and Paul L.T. Haroult of France independently developed commercial aluminum production methods based on electrolysis. As a result, by the turn of the twentieth century, aluminum prices had dropped to $0.33 per pound.

One of the most famous aluminum castings in the United States was placed on the tip of the Washington Monument in 1884. The first aluminum household utensils were created during the 1890s and gained popularity during the early 1900s. By the mid-1960s, more than half of the cookware on the U.S. market was aluminum.

In 1903, aluminum reached new heights when Wilbur and Orville Wright launched the Kitty Hawk Flyer. Its converted engine contained 30 pounds of aluminum parts.

During World War I, items such as canteens, mess kits, ammunition cases, and tent pins were made from cast aluminum. The emerging automotive industry required engines, manifolds, crankcases, oil pans, and valve covers. World War II increased aluminum casting demands by the military, and brought growing needs within the aeronautic industry.

In the 1990s, overall automotive content doubled as car companies incorporated more aluminum to help reduce vehicle weight and meet federally mandated fuel efficiency standards. The driving force for aluminum castings in the United States was the automobile industry's efforts to conform with the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) governmental regulations. According to a study commissioned by the Aluminum Association, the average North American passenger car or light truck contained 183 pounds of aluminum parts in 1991. By 1996, the aluminum content per vehicle had increased more than 80 percent to 248 pounds. Indeed between 1977 and 1999, the average aluminum content per vehicle rose by 150 pounds per vehicle--4.3 percent per year. Approximately 63 percent of the total amount of aluminum in 1999 model cars was recycled metal. In the late 1990s, 92.5 percent of all aluminum used in the automotive industry was in the form of castings.

Modern Casting Techniques.
During the mid-twentieth century, aluminum foundries relied on several different casting technologies to meet the diverse demands of their customers. The casting techniques are differentiated by the type of mold used and the process by which the molds are filled. One of the most common types of casting is called "sand casting." Sand castings are created using molds formed from precise blends of sands, clays, and moisture. After a mold is formed, molten aluminum is poured into it. When the aluminum hardens, the sand is removed. The advantages of sand casting are its versatility and low cost for producing small quantities. Its principle disadvantage is its slowness compared to other casting methods.

Shell mold casting is a type of sand casting that relies on a thin mold made of preformed, baked sand. Plaster mold casting is similar to sand casting but molds are fabricated from plaster instead of sand. Plaster mold casting produces products with an improved surface finish.

Permanent mold castings employ molds made of iron or steel into which aluminum is poured. Although aluminum die-casting also uses permanent steel molds, it differs from permanent mold casting by using pressure to force the molten aluminum into the dies, instead of relying on gravity. Permanent mold casting technology produces the strongest castings.

Investment casting is a complex type of casting in which two or more permanent molds are assembled with an intervening wax lining or in which a wax shape is formed and dipped into a special liquid ceramic. When dried, the ceramic creates a shell around the shape. In both cases, the wax is heated and drained to create a hollow for the liquid aluminum. Because the melted wax is drained out of the mold, investment casting is sometimes referred to as the "lost wax" method. After cooling, the mold is broken and an exact aluminum replica of the former wax image remains. One advantage of investment casting is its ability to duplicate intricate patterns.

One of the most recently developed casting processes is called expendable pattern casting, sometimes referred to as "lost foam casting" or "evaporative foam pattern casting." Expendable pattern casting employs a polystyrene pattern made from fused polystyrene beads surrounded by a special sand pack. When liquid aluminum is poured into the mold the polystyrene vaporizes. This procedure yields a casting of the same dimensions as the pattern. Thus, the process holds many advantages such as a reduction in finishing costs and an improved ability to make more complicated designs. According to one estimate, production cost savings associated with expendable pattern casting are as much as 50 percent over traditional casting techniques.

Why Aluminum?
Many industrial users favor aluminum because of its physical and chemical properties. Aluminum reflects light, conducts heat and electricity, and weighs only one-third as much as an equal volume of steel. It is also nonmagnetic, nontoxic, and naturally resistant to corrosion. Cast aluminum products are made of pure aluminum or aluminum alloys. Pure industrial aluminum is defined as aluminum containing less than 1 percent impurities. Many of the alloys incorporated into aluminum are added to improve the mixture's hardness, tensile strength, or corrosion resistance. Binary aluminum alloys are made of aluminum and one other element, while complex alloys contain two or more other elements. The most frequently used metals in aluminum alloys include copper, magnesium, manganese, and zinc. Another element often alloyed with aluminum is silicon. Alloys of aluminum with silicon have a lower melting point, which results in improved castability.

A trend in the automotive industry fueling the use of aluminum castings in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the growing popularity of light trucks, including pick-up trucks, sport utility vehicles, and minivans. While the average passenger car had gained 8 pounds of aluminum between 1996 and 1999, the average light truck gained 34 pounds of aluminum.

Advances in the refrigeration and air conditioning market sectors also spurred aluminum sales in the early 2000s. Plus, the building and construction sector was strong along with the transportation sector into the mid-2000s with the aid of historically low interest rates.

The increased demand for aluminum in the United States combined with growing demand globally pushed up the price of aluminum. Therefore, when the trends reversed and U.S. demand for aluminum decreased in 2006 with a struggling housing market and slowing auto sales, revenues still increased to $3.76 billion from $3.70 billion in 2005.

Consumption of aluminum in the United States declined 11 percent in 2006. Shipments for the building and construction sector dropped by 2 percent, while shipments for the transportation sector dipped slightly less than 1 percent.

Continued increases in consumption in China in particular offset the declines in the United States, keeping prices for aluminum high through 2006 and 2007. The high prices for aluminum and the lagging demand domestically caused many companies to close or consolidate aluminum foundries. The number of establishments in the industry dwindled to 466 in 2006 from a total of 625 establishments involved in aluminum casting in the late 1990s, and the number was expected to drop even further in the late 2000s. For example, Ford Motor Co. planned to pull out of engine casting by 2009 and outsource its business to Canada, Mexico, South America, and Europe.

Not all the news was bad near the end of the decade. General Motors Corp. opted to take the opposite path from Ford and expand its interests in aluminum foundries in the Midwest. In 2007, General Motors announced plans to spend $63 million to expand an aluminum foundry in Saginaw, Michigan, and also had unspecified plans to expand casting and engine plants in Toledo and Defiance, Ohio, plus upgrade another foundry in Indiana. General Motors did plan to close an aluminum foundry in New York in 2008, but also announced it would upgrade another engine plant in New York.

Current Conditions

Global economic turmoil translated into dramatic declines in aluminum consumption, consequently, production volumes as well. Both the slowing auto sales and the struggling housing market intensified coming virtually a standstill in 2008. U.S. Automobile manufacturing declined 16.1 percent in 2008, and as much as 25.8 percent during the fourth-quarter of 2008 compared to the same time in 2007. Commercial construction offset residential construction somewhat; however, when the numbers were in, housing starts still fell 36.2 percent in 2008 compared to 2007.

Moreover, domestic aluminum consumption fell by 14 percent in 2008, with aluminum for containers and packaging the only sector that remained relatively steady in both 2007 and 2008. Aluminum consumption in the transportation sector fell 21 percent; building and construction another 16 percent; consumer durables by 9 percent; electrical by 8 percent; and machinery sector by 7 percent.

As 2008 came to a close and 2009 began some foundries were closing as aluminum prices continued to spiral downward. Global demand for aluminum was expected to remain well below that of years past, at least until the auto and housing markets stabilize.

Despite the gloom, there was one reason to be a little optimistic. For instance, with focus on fuel efficiency, General Motors Corp. decided to use aluminum versus cast iron and steel for engine blocks, heads, wheels, and additional parts in both its light trucks and sport utility vehicles beginning in 2009.

Aluminum executives began to feel a little optimistic by mid-2010 as demand in some end-use markets, especially transportation and packaging began to pick up slightly. Volatile commodity prices remained challenging stifling demand to a certain extent, however, industry participants didn't see that changing anytime soon. Some industry observers don't see a rebound in residential construction until 2012.

Industry Leaders

One of the largest aluminum foundries in the United States is CMI International, Inc. of Southfield, Michigan. CMI is a major producer of machine-cast and molded parts primarily for the automotive industry. Its products include intake manifolds, cylinder heads, engine blocks, suspension and chassis systems, and drive train components. The foundry also produces castings for trucking, mining, and construction equipment. Other industry leaders were Wabash Alloys, Columbia Aluminum Corporation, and General Housewares Corporation.

CMI International, Inc. revenues totaled approximately $2.7 billion in 2009. Wabash Alloys of Beechwood, Ohio was acquired by privately held Aleris International Inc. located in Beechwood, OH in 2007. Wabash Alloys reported revenues of an estimated $900 million in 2006 with about 700 employees. The company operated seven plants in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Workforce

Aluminum foundries employ a wide variety of skilled and unskilled workers. Typical employees with specialized skills include technicians, engineers, and chemists. Other specialists include patternmakers (who produce the patterns necessary to create castings), molders (who make the sand molds), and coremakers (who make sand cores). Aluminum foundries also employ many workers with skills not specific to metalcasting. These include industrial hygienists, electricians, and millwrights.

A total of 26,565 people were employed at aluminum foundries in 2006, down from 35,108 in 2000. The 54 foundries in Ohio in 2006 employed 3,475 people, while 2,219 people worked at the 27 foundries in Indiana. California also had more than 2,000 aluminum foundry workers; Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania each were home to more than 1,000.

Among employees in aluminum foundries, burns have been one of the leading causes of work-related injuries. To help protect workers from the inherent dangers involved in handling hot, liquid metal, the Aluminum Association's recommended safety precautions include the use of shields and the establishment of areas in which personnel must wear protective equipment. Special protective clothing for workers directly exposed to molten aluminum is deemed essential because some types of fabrics are subject to igniting or melting upon contact with the liquid metal. As a result, industry standards require wrist to ankle coverage and mandate the use of special footwear, gloves, headgear, and safety glasses.

Research and Technology

Ongoing research efforts within the cast aluminum industry have been aimed at alleviating specific casting problems and producing castings of a better quality. Because aluminum shrinks as it cools, castings were sometimes prone to "hot tears," a type of fracture caused by the stresses created during solidification. Breaks in the finished product caused by insufficient metal flow during the casting process can lead to another problem. These types of deficiencies are known as "shrinkage cracks."

One of the biggest challenges, however, has been the elimination of hydrogen-induced porosity in cast products. Under certain conditions, hydrogen, which was soluble in aluminum, can cause tiny pores within a casting's metal structure. According to Hans J. Heine, International Editor of Foundry Management & Technology, these tiny holes represent "a primary cause for rejection of an aluminum casting."

To help reduce hydrogen-induced porosity, a method was developed to pass nitrogen gas through the molten aluminum solution. The nitrogen was not soluble in aluminum and the action of its presence helped the mixture release trapped hydrogen prior to casting. Some researchers experimented with refinements using argon, freon, and chlorine. Although these methods were deemed effective, industry analysts judged them to be too expensive. Another promising method of reducing hydrogen-induced porosity involved degassing the molten aluminum under a partial vacuum. Pressurized conditions caused the gas to float to the surface of the molten mixture.

To produce castings with specific qualities, sometimes heat treatments are used. When a cast product is heated and cooled under precise conditions, it develops a uniform internal structure, removes stresses, and improves its strength, stability, and hardness. One type of heat treatment, called annealing, involves heating a casting to a temperature above the point where its metal crystals would melt and then cooling it to recrystallize the metal.

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