Process Control

No control charts were posted in work areas (melt furnaces, dip lines, wax machines) in any of the foundries visited. In analyzing this, it was concluded that the absence of control charts might be due to two possible reasons: (1) the control charts have been so successful in improving quality that they are no longer needed and/or (2) the Japanese, having learned which variables are truly important to control, have designed easy control of the important few variables into the process and ignore the others. These two reasons are, of course, related: if the use of control charts clearly shows what needs to be controlled, then the process can be designed so that control of those variables is built in, eliminating the need for control charts. Similarly, if control charts show that controlling a particular variable has no effect on the quality of the final product, then it is no longer necessary to be concerned with that variable.

It is interesting to note that at two of the foundries, the patterns are attached to the downpole at the wax press instead of going to a separate operation. Even though one of the foundries was highly automated, it suggests that this approach to reducing labor costs and improving quality is consistent with the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement.

Environmental Regulations and Management Response

WTEC's hosts at all of the Japanese foundries this panel visited emphasized their efforts to improve the environment. This message was set forth in brochures, in descriptions of research efforts, and in implementation of environmental enhancements, which were made to comply with the regulations and often were made even without regulations. There seems to be a cooperative relationship between foundry management and the government on environmental regulations. Japanese foundries honestly expect to be good corporate citizens in the area of environmental compliance and accept the cost as a cost of doing business.

Japanese foundries emphasize waste stream minimization and recycling. As a result, there is little waste to treat or dispose of. Landfill disposal regulations vary by prefecture in Japan, and foundries report that they have no difficulty with spent shell disposal: it is hauled away by their waste disposal contractors at no cost penalty. One foundry sells its spent shell material to a local pottery industry for recycling. It appears that for some time landfill will be cheaper than general recycling of shell materials. Foundry managers indicated that environmental laws are becoming tighter and more of a nuisance, but none indicated that they considered them to be a burden.

Japanese investment foundries do not have high quality domestic supplies of raw materials, even though a number of foundries have internal engineering programs to try to develop local materials to their processes. Therefore recycling of refractories and metal is particularly important to maintaining cost control of their operations.

Worker Recruitment and Retention

The foundry industry in Japan has difficulty attracting workers, as discussed in a previous section. Because of the difficulty of recruiting workers, Japanese foundries emphasize training and retention of the workers they employ. Most foundries require their employees at all levels to undergo two weeks of training annually to maintain and sharpen skills. This emphasis on worker training has the advantage (in addition to skill development) of instilling pride in the workers about the company, its processes, and its products. In every foundry visited it was obvious that the employees were anxious to do their best and were proud of the company they worked for.

Energy Issues

Energy costs in Japan are three times what they are in the United States. For this reason, there is much emphasis on energy conservation. Heat from solidifying castings is captured and used for space heating. Hot or warm water is not discharged into cold water until the excess heat is reclaimed. Of the few research projects we learned about that are sponsored by the government, one is dedicated (at a budget of $18 million in FY 1997) to the development of a more efficient melting furnace. The foundry division of one large corporation told us that corporate funds are always available for energy saving projects.

Other Observations

Japanese investment foundries make little use of solidification simulation. There are at present three Japanese solidification simulation programs in use in Japan; none are available outside the country, and, indeed, only one has ever been mentioned at international meetings on solidification simulation. One of the reasons for the lag in the use of these programs may be difficulties in programming in Japanese; one of the codes (under development at Tohoku University) is written in English. Some Japanese foundry engineers estimate that they are 10 to 15 years behind the United States and Europe in the use and development of foundry codes.

Rapid prototyping also is rarely used in Japanese investment foundries. One company visited (INCS, Inc.) indicated that it did 60% of the independent rapid prototyping work in the country: three employees were in evidence on the day of the WTEC visit. Again, this can most probably be traced to the lag in the application of computer models in Japan. [See JTEC/WTEC Panel Report on Rapid Prototyping in Europe and Japan, Vol. II p. 69 for more details on INCS.]

Many of the research needs of the Japanese investment casting industry today are concerned with recycling. In-plant wax recycling, in-plant alloy recycling, and in-plant shell material recycling were all cited as important issues. The Japanese would also like an improved pattern wax, as well as methods for improving dimensional tolerances. Finally, hosts at one foundry indicated that they would like to have a way to pour amorphous metals (a material which is being aggressively developed by Japanese university researchers) even though there does not appear to be a current market.

Published: March 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian