Albany Chicago Company has supplied the world with superior parts and in the process has reinvented its operation to better serve the challenges of 21st century production.
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Lorie Greenspan reports.
A company with a rich past can’t continue to look in the rear-view mirror – at some point the road has to unfurl ahead of you as well and you must adapt to the new ways of business. This is just the thing that is poised to keep Albany Chicago Company ahead of the pack as it winds its way into the future with newer die-cast products and technologies in the world of die casting.
“One of the things we’ve thought about is continuity – how an older company works to renew itself. As markets change and products and technology change we’ve needed to rethink how people need our skills. We’ve done this through an adaptive model, which allows us to respond quickly. We feel the ability to change is critical to our continued growth,” says Hal Gerber, sales, engineering and technology leader at Albany Chicago.
In existence for more than 50 years, the Albany Chicago Company, founded on Albany Street in Chicago, has developed into a world-class die casting enterprise, producing complex, custom die cast aluminum components. Utilizing advanced equipment and manufacturing processes, the company performs production machining to precise tolerances, as it specializes in diesel engines, hydraulics, gears, medical and recreational equipment. In addition to its North American customers, Albany Chicago services export markets in Latin America, South America, Western Europe, Pacific Rim, and China.
Albany Chicago started as a plating company, and moved into machining castings in the 1960s. At first, it produced primarily in zinc. In the late 1970s, the company began pouring aluminum, and the demand for zinc began to fade away. In 2005, the business officially became known as the Albany Chicago Company when the Orion Corporation, its parent, underwent a corporate restructuring. Before the makeover, Orion’s die cast business (Albany-Chicago) and its bearing business (Orion) were owned and managed as divisions that operated independently of each other. In September 2005, the die cast business was transferred to a new, wholly owned subsidiary named “Albany Chicago Company,” while the bearing business was transferred to a subsidiary named “Orion Corporation.” At the same time, the parent company was renamed CPL Industries, Inc. The rationale behind the changes was to create a more efficient organizational structure for the business units.
The company’s path toward future technologies, explains Gerber, has started with engineering advancements and “reinventing new ways to use die casting to be more flexible, and have more structural integrity, while responding to environmental demand,” says Gerber.
Albany Chicago, which operates a Die Cast Division headquartered in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., has innovated its way into the 21st century in a variety of ways. Take coupling technology: “We use internal tubing that we cast around; it allows us to make complex structures and then add on features,” Gerber says. These products are part of the fluid handling system in engines and vehicle undercarriages, ATVs and cooling applications.
The company also employs a method called “loose-piece construction” in cases when a shape needs to be cast into a part and space is limited. A loose piece is embedded inside the casting, allowing the casting to be successfully completed without internal passages, collapsed or torn material. “Through loose piece we can make more complex structures,” Gerber says, including gears, fluid passages and structural supports.
“There’s also new technology that allows very thin castings to be heat treated through a high-vacuum process, which evacuates harmful gas and makes the part stronger, stiffer and more ductile,” he explains. “This is just coming to market here in the U.S. although it’s done quite widely in Europe in motor vehicles to take the weight out, which translates into less gas, lighter and safer vehicles.” In fact, Gerber adds, “This is a very elegant solution. It’s normally done in stamped steel.” The company, he says, has invested $2 million in new equipment to facilitate this process.
Currently, Albany Chicago’s biggest market is industrial equipment, with automotive as the smallest (interesting to note, Gerber points out: 75 percent of all castings across market purchases go into the automotive sector).
TEAMS AND TECHNOLOGY
Albany Chicago, with revenues of $64 million in 2008, has utilized its adaptive model through two years of industry changes and foreign competition and has been successful at it through a team approach, in which groups of people in house focus on a specific customer’s needs. “It allows us to drive things like parts per million performance and delivery to excellent levels” in three segments, Gerber explains: engineering expertise, die cast excellence and quality driven machining and assembly capability. The company is TS16949 certified to meet new standards in the auto market and has also received ISO certification.
“We’re seeing that as customers are downsizing, their engineering experts are lost or traded away or jettisoned, and they’re relying on vendors more for reliability, economics and design with best practices at heart. We’ve had to add to our staff to ensure we’re doing a good job and we’ve done the appropriate sizing to make sure we’re still viable. It’s allowed us to pair down to what’s absolutely critical.”
In paring down the company has also beefed up its technological expertise. Today Albany Chicago operates with the latest in design and simulation tools, such as PRO-E; SDRC-Ideas solids; Solid Works, Finite Element Analysis with ANSYS Flow3D; Castflow, and castTherm for flow and thermal simulation. Albany Chicago can also perform prototyping in soft molds or alternative casting processes and gating analysis and design for optimal flow and properties. Tooling is designed and built to ACC standards.
The company’s die-casting capability includes cast-in-place tubes, cast-in-place threaded studs and loose piece tool construction as well as 18 die-casting machines, ranging from 400 to 2500-ton.
Albany Chicago’s manufacturing operations are housed in two buildings, encompassing nearly 200,000 square feet, at its Pleasant Prairie site. It employs more than 400 covering three shifts, five or six days during a week.
As a QS: 9000-registered organization, Albany Chicago is strongly focused on quality assurance. To this end, it employs a combination of automated coordinate measuring machines, spectrographic analysis for alloy, computerized X-ray machines and other measuring instruments to assure that all castings and machined assemblies are produced to precise specifications. Quality extends to delivery as well, as Albany Chicago can deliver certified parts directly to customers’ assembly lines.
Through half a century of providing industry with the best in die-cast parts, Albany Chicago Company has proven that it can stick it out through the tough times by staying true to its mission of innovation and reinvention – both of which have served the company well.