VP Sales & Marketing, North American Cronite
Jim you and I have known each other for some time now-it actually dates back many years to when we were both working with furnace builder AFC-Holcroft. However in spite of this long history I don’t believe I have ever asked how you got into this industry. Could you give us some background?
I got my start in the industry from a help wanted ad in the Detroit Free Press. My soon to be Mother-In-Law clipped an ad out of the paper for a Project Manager with Holcroft in Livonia, Michigan. I was living and working in Lansing, my fiancé teaching in Dearborn, and a summer wedding fast approaching. Vera Roggen, Manager of Contracts, was kind enough to hire me and launch my education into capital equipment and heat treatment. I was fortunate that Holcroft had a very experienced team that was willing to share their knowledge. After our acquisition by Atmosphere Furnace Company, I had the pleasure of working for and being mentored by Gordon Willett. On the morning of September 11th, Gordon promoted/transferred/off-loaded me to the sales department to work for Tim McMann. It was just a surreal day for me with this significant career change being followed by a world altering terrorist attack. It’s been quite a ride ever since. The heat treat industry has been very good to myself and my family, and I owe it all to my Mother-In-Law wanting to keep her daughter close to home.
Can you tell us a little bit about North American Cronite’s background and how the company got started? Where are they located, how many people work there, what products you offer? Along the same lines where would Cronite rank in size compared to other alloy suppliers?
North American Cronite (NAC) was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1976 as a sales, distribution, and fabricated products manufacturing location for Cronite Castings Limited (CCL) in the UK.
In 1992, AFE Technologies completed its acquisitions of Cronite Castings Limited (1919), Mancelle de Foundry (1935) in France, and Klefisch (1917) in Germany to form a European foundry group. There were several name changes along the way as AFE expanded to add steel casting and plastic injection molding to their portfolio. In 2018, the Cronite Group was spun off as an independent entity.
The Cronite Group continues its global presence with five alloy foundries in (England, France, India, and China), two fabricated products facilities (Germany and USA), a CFC fabrication facility (France), an R&D center (Czech Republic), and sales offices throughout the world.
Cronite is know for our expertise in design, engineering, and alloy development. Our foundry processes include green sand for mass production, chemical sand for items over 2 Tons, lost wax for very accurate parts, and centrifugal for tubes.
The Cronite Group is a midsize company with revenue of 75-100 million Euro and approximately 750 employees. We pour over 3,000 tons of cast alloy products annually.
There are a number of different casting processes, sand cast and investment cast are two that come to mind. To many of us the differences are not clear as to why you would choose one over another. I certainly realize that this could turn into a very long, detailed explanation but if you could give us a brief overview it would be appreciated.
The three primary differences to focus on would be Cost, Accuracy / Surface Finish, and Strength. The lost wax or investment casting process is generally more expensive. It requires more manufacturing steps and energy to produce similar parts. Lost wax is ideal for small parts or parts with complicated details/features which require dimensional accuracy. The surface finish of lost wax parts is fine and uniform. Lost wax is occasionally requested for part contacting surfaces. Green sand is ideal for high volume production. Green sand products also have a finer grain structure due to the slower cooling rate and are generally stronger in applications with mechanical forces applied at elevated temperature.
People sell the process they produce, so I can understand how there may be some confusion in the market. We routinely provide solutions with products using both processes.
Jim I had the privilege of hearing you give a talk at a heat treatment open house at ECM USA a few years back. In that talk you explained how Cronite was offering “hybrid” fixtures for lack of a better term, basically combining a cast fixture with a CFC fixture-why? Let me rephrase that slightly, what are the benefits of combining the two materials and has it proven to be a success?
Just like with lost wax and green sand, CFC and Alloy each have their Pros and Cons. Our addition of CFC/Graphite machining in 1995 to our facility in France allows us to design and produce hybrid solutions combining refractory alloys and carbon materials to achieve the perfect balance of cost, strength, weight, and temperature/process resistance.
At the 2019 ASM Heat Treat Show in Detroit, I believe there were more CFC suppliers than alloy suppliers exhibiting. The same principle holds here where people sell what they produce. Our niche in the NA market has historically been dedicated heat treat fixtures due to our design/engineering expertise. Our CFC/Alloy Hybrid fixtures are simply an extension of this design strength, combining the benefits of each material to maximize load size, life cycle, and process results all while minimizing cost.
Lets talk competition, in particular lets talk China and India. Both have made efforts to penetrate the North American and European markets with low–cost alloy products and both have had some success or perhaps I should say limited success. Do you see this changing?
The alloy foundry business is a very difficult business. It’s particularly difficult when you consider the product mix is thousands of short run part numbers in multiple alloys being used in a destructive process which makes your parts a consumable. It is very challenging to satisfy price, delivery, and life cycle at the same time.
There will always be a place in any market for the low-cost supplier whether they be domestic or international. There are not many corners to cut in our industry, so the low-cost supplier typically utilizes excessive scrap, has poor quality controls, simplified tooling with few cores, and a standardized feeding system. The size of the market willing to purchase from the low-cost supplier will remain roughly the same over time. At present, it’s very difficult for the low-cost international supplier to compete due partially to tariffs but mostly to logistics costs and delivery time in this post-covid economy.
China and India have their own domestic markets which include many North American and European customers. A foundry being located in either of these countries does not necessarily make them a low-cost supplier. We operate foundries in both India and China, and the bulk of our production is for their respective domestic customers. Our Cronite Kartik foundry in India is primarily dedicated to the Petrochem industry so not too applicable to your readers. Our Cronite Castings Wuhan foundry in China started production in 2009 and has excelled at lost wax production of larger parts for the heat treat market. Their success this past decade is the reason we are currently ramping up production of a newly constructed high volume green sand plant. Don’t get hung up on location. It’s a global world now and quality products can be produced anywhere.
The last year has been “trying” which is truly an understatement of monumental proportions. What would you say are your biggest challenges as a company have been over the past year and how are you overcoming them?
Our biggest challenge of 2020 was the simultaneous build/launch of our new green sand foundry in China and the closing of our foundry in Mexico. Travel restrictions and quarantine requirements compounded the challenges involved with these two major tasks. Fortunately, we’ve essentially completed both projects and it’s merely a matter of ramping up production to pre-pandemic levels.
Business has really fluctuated because of the pandemic, how was this past year for you and what do you expect for the remainder of 2021?
Globally the Cronite Group did experience a pandemic downturn, but our North American Cronite business unit did not. I’m not sure why. Maybe we just had the right product and/or customer mix. 2021 has been supercharged since January 4th. I expect it to continue well into 2022.
I can imagine you run across some odd requests in terms of materials, processes or quantities. Are there any really memorable or interesting jobs that you’ve worked on that you can share with us?
I’ve certainly experienced many unique requests in my 24 years in this industry. Having signed so many NDAs over the years, I must be rather general with these two alloy stories.
We were approached by a captive heat treater looking to purchase a batch IQ tray at 6” thick. Aside from being incredibly heavy, expensive, and difficult to cast, this obviously prompted a few questions to understand the why behind the request. The why was the need for flatness precision of the base tray and the 6” thickness request was to provide sufficient machining stock for years of service life. We proposed and delivered a hybrid Alloy/CFC solution which provided the results they were looking to achieve.
We had another captive heat treater request a replacement for an existing pit carburizing fixture. This was during covid lockdown, so I was unable to visit the plant. During our proposal design review, the customer casually mentioned that his existing fixture was well over 40 years old. This set off a red flag for me. What in the world am I missing for a pit carburizing fixture to last 40+ years? They sent us the existing fixture for review and dimension confirmation, and it was a wrought 330 fixture! I was now truly perplexed and worried that I would not be able to provide a solution which matched the longevity of the original fixture. Come to find out this fixture was used for very low volume specialty parts, so the cycle count of the existing fixture was equivalent to maybe 3-years of high–volume operation.
My daughter will make fun of me when she reads these “memorable” stories.
I know you used to travel quite a bit to see customers, do you still travel as much as you used to? Do you think business is going to transition to a lot more online meetings rather than in person?
Aside from the initial 6-8 weeks lockdown period, I traveled and visited customers throughout the pandemic. I find in-plant visits to be very helpful in grasping the full picture before recommending a fixture solution. I have had more Zoom, Teams, Skype, and WebEx meetings than ever, but things are trending back to the old normal rather quickly.
Another thing that’s really changed with the pandemic is the transition to online heat treat shows. Do you think the upcoming show will be held in person or online? Will Cronite be planning on having a booth this year?
I certainly hope we are in-person. St. Louis is my hometown, so I’m looking forward to taking a few extra days to visit family and childhood friends. We will have a booth if the in-person show goes forward. Attendee numbers will probably be down, but it’s still worthwhile in my opinion to maintain relationships with other suppliers to the heat treat industry.
Please look deep into your crystal ball and tell me what you see short term, medium term and long term for the industry. A good starting point would be electric vehicles, a discussion you and I have had several times recently. Personally I believe it will be some time before EV’s become prevalent enough to effect the volume of heat treating required currently but it would appear that you are seeing something different.
My crystal ball is always evolving, and I must admit I failed to appreciate one fact I learned from the Dennis Beauchesne podcast. There are fewer gears in an EV transmission, but the gears are larger. It’s been a few years since I sized an LPC furnace, so I failed to grasp the impact of gear size on furnace chamber requirements. To see the forest through the trees, sometimes you need to be a good listener. Heat treat volumes may not be affected as much by the transition to EVs as I had originally thought. EVs are coming, and our electrical infrastructure will have to grow to meet this demand. Ford has done an exceptional job of marketing the benefits of the F-150 Lightening, and its level of success will be the key indicator in determining the speed of market change.
From a heat treat perspective, I can confidently say that EV transmission production will cement the transition from atmosphere carburizing to LPC for automotive gears. It may also expand the use of other specialty thermal processes which are not currently being utilized for automotive gears. We certainly have exciting times ahead of us.
Where else can you see us going? Boom times ahead for the heat treatment industry?
The continued growth of automation and process/part traceability is enhancing our customers ability to accurately track their heat treatment costs. Cronite has been at the forefront of this development for our automotive customers. Our carburization resistant alloy grades and alloy/CFC hybrids will continue to grow in popularity as customers realize the benefits of a higher initial cost but lower total cost. These technology developments will probably have a larger impact on future alloy volumes than the transition to EV transmissions.
Jim as always I enjoy speaking with you and look forward to many more conversations in the future. Sincerely, Gord Montgomery.