Sustainable resolve
A pouring ladle transferring iron to the molding line at Plant 4 in Marinette, Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy of Waupaca Foundry Inc.

Sustainable resolve

Scrap consumption is one of the many sustainable aspects of Waupaca Foundry Inc., headquartered in Wisconsin.

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January 19, 2021

Waupaca Foundry Inc., headquartered in Waupaca, Wisconsin, produces iron castings largely from scrap metal for use in the transportation, construction, agriculture and industrial markets. The company, which has been owned by Tokyo-based Hitachi Metals Group since 2014, says it is committed to continuous improvement and dedicated to “advancing technology, safety and productivity.” One item missing from that list is sustainability.

An original recycler

​Iron foundries are among the original recyclers, creating new products out of recycled steel scrap and iron.

Founded as the Pioneer Foundry in 1871 by John Rosche on the banks of the Waupaca River, the company took the Waupaca Foundry Inc. name in 1955 when Clifford Schwenn purchased it.

Waupaca Foundry now operates six iron casting foundries and two machining facilities in Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee and Illinois, as well as a location in Ironwood, Michigan, where castings produced at its Waupaca foundries are cleaned and finished. Recognizing that capacity exceeded demand, in the summer of 2020, the company closed a seventh foundry in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. That facility primarily produced automotive suspension components, including steering knuckles, control arms and brackets.

According to the company, it melts up to 9,500 tons of iron daily across its six foundries.

Brian Powell, director of procurement and supply at Waupaca Foundry, says, “Approximately 85 percent of the materials used in our melt process come from recycled materials.”

Image courtesy of Waupcaca Foundry Inc.
At any given time, Waupaca foundries only have a four-horr supply of scrap on the ground.

He notes that in its 2019 fiscal year, Waupaca consumed 1 million tons of steel scrap in the production of its various grades of gray iron and ductile iron, including Hitachi Metals HNM Series high-strength and austempered ductile iron. Other metallic inputs include pig iron and copper.

The company purchases scrap from the automotive, appliance and general scrap market, Powell says.

“Melting 9,500 tons daily requires multiple strong partners,” he says. “Waupaca Foundry aims to source locally where, and as often as, possible. At any given time, there is only a four-hour supply of feedstock on the ground.”

According to Waupaca’s sustainability report, 8 of its top 10 supplier relationships go back 25 years or more, and all suppliers are certified through a defined, documented process.

Waupaca employs two types of melt processes—induction, or electric, and cupola—Powell says.

“The advantage of electric melt is the flexibility for frequent material changes and starts/stops,” he explains. “Cupola melting is still generally recognized as the most economical melting process if the furnace is operated continuously, such as is the case at Waupaca Foundry.”

Powell adds that even though the cupola process is 300 years old, it is the more efficient of the two processes and the primary method used at Waupaca.

Given the company’s use of continual and large batch melting, Powell says Waupaca Foundry holds its scrap tolerances to high standards. “There is an audit and review to ensure tramp [metals] are to the specification that allows Waupaca to meet our customers’ high-quality standards. It all starts with melt, and we work closely with our partners to ensure their standards are met.”

Waupaca Foundry Director of Environmental Engineering Bryant Esch says the company melts more than the weight of the Eiffel Tower daily across its operations, which includes a considerable amount of tin cans.

When scrap enters the company’s foundries, Esch says, it is sorted and sized “so it is optimal for our process.” He adds that this helps the company maintain production.

While Esch describes scrap usage as “one of the major cogs of sustainability” at Waupaca, it is not the only one.

“The shift away from ICEs to electrification is accelerating. However, the ratio of pure EVs—EVs that run only on batteries—is forecast to be about 10 percent of vehicles produced in 2030, and, until then, engines will still be installed, including [in] hybrid vehicles. Parts for internal combustion engines will continue to contribute to our portfolio.” Brian Powell, director of procurement and supply at Waupaca Foundry

Sustainable beyond scrap

Despite its significant use of ferrous scrap, Waupaca acknowledges that foundries also consume a good deal of energy and water and produce wastes, including foundry sand, which is why the company has focused on the following sustainability goals for its 2020 fiscal year, which ends March 30:

  • reduce energy use intensity by 25 percent;
  • reduce water consumption by 80 percent;
  • promote alternative processes and maintain advanced pollution control technologies; and
  • reduce spent foundry sand generation by 30 percent while promoting off-site reuse/recycling opportunities for remaining spent foundry materials.

Esch says that as of early January, Waupaca has achieved a 23 percent reduction in its energy use relative to 2010 and earned a U.S. Department of Energy 2020 Better Project Award for a system that removes humidity from the air entering the cupola at its Tell City, Indiana, foundry.

The federal program recognizes manufacturers for creating and implementing industrial energy and water efficiency projects, as well as renewable energy and energy resiliency projects.

Esch says plant engineers installed a desiccant cupola blast air drying system that removes water vapor from ambient air prior to introduction to the foundry's cupola, enabling the company to use less coke in the melting process.

“The system passes air through a desiccant air wheel which works like a filter to remove water from the air, increasing the efficiency of the combustion process,” Marco Gonzalez, corporate energy manager for Waupaca Foundry, says in a news release the company distributed after receiving the award in June of last year. “It’s like if you’re trying to light a barbecue during a rainy day, the moisture in the air will consume power from your charcoal and they will take longer to light. By removing the moisture from the air, the fuel can burn more efficiently.”

Removing humidity from the air stabilizes operations throughout the year and reduces energy consumption, according to the company. “Every pound of water removed equals a certain amount of coke reduction,” Esch says.

The cupola system also is designed to recover and return waste heat to the cupola’s melting zone, which further boosts the system’s energy efficiency, he adds.

In addition to the energy savings, the system reduces ash and solid waste produced during the melting process. 

The melting process represents 65 percent of the Tell City foundry’s total energy usage, with coke being the largest energy source.

In addition to supporting the direct melting processes, excess “waste” heat from the cupola furnace supplies building heat and is used to heat water at Waupaca Foundry facilities in cold months. Heat recovery systems used at Waupaca Foundry plants provide 70 percent of the foundries’ space heating requirements, and 100 percent of the plants' hot water needs where the recovery technology has been implemented, the company says.

Esch says Waupaca Foundry also wanted to reduce its use of fresh water in its foundry pollution control and noncontact machine cooling applications. He says each of the company’s foundries in Waupaca used 1 million gallons of water per day for these purposes. Plant upgrades substituted these single-use water cooling systems with closed-loop and air-cooled heat exchangers, cutting water demands by nearly 67 percent, Esch adds, and reducing noncontact cooling water discharge to near zero.

The company’s sustainability efforts also have been recognized by the American Foundry Society, Schaumburg, Illinois. In 2020, Waupaca Foundry was awarded the Green Foundry Sustainability Award for initiatives that included implementing the ISO 50001 Energy Management System, a formal management system approach to energy reduction. To gain the ISO certification, the company says it created and implemented a program in energy management at its gray iron foundry Plant 1 in Waupaca and then reviewed and checked data to ensure consistent results. After 12 months of preparation and a verification audit by an independent registrar, the certification was granted in 2017.

Waupaca Foundry says energy is one of the company’s greatest expenses, costing about $150 million in fiscal 2019 across all Waupaca Foundry locations.

Additionally, Waupaca Foundry recycles 450,000 tons of foundry byproducts annually, including sand. One grain of sand can be recycled approximately 50 times internally at the company’s foundries by cooling and reconditioning it, Esch says.

Sand that can no longer be recycled internally is removed from the process and sourced to general construction, road construction, agricultural use and geotechnical fill, according to the company. About 75 percent of Waupaca’s sand is going off-site for beneficial use in these applications, he adds.

Waupaca Foundry’s sustainability initiatives and its focus on continual improvement have helped to position the company for future growth, Esch says. 

 

Room for growth

“Waupaca Foundry is well-positioned to grow,” Powell says. “Waupaca will continue to expand in markets in support of its customers’ growth. This will be realized through key strategic capital investments throughout our facilities. And it can be seen in new technology, such as expanded use of automation, which carries positive social and environmental impacts.”

He says that upon completion of its 2020 sustainability goals, new three-year targets are being developed to facilitate ongoing improvements. “Waupaca is also investigating the procurement of long-term renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, using variable power purchase agreements, as well as to maximize the use of waste heat to work towards a carbon-net-zero business model.”

While sustainability will factor into the company’s future, Powell says Waupaca Foundry’s ongoing use of scrap could be challenged by the growth in the use of specialty metals in many industries. “The more high-strength steel, the more challenging it will be to use a straight scrap supply to melt iron. This indicates more reliance on virgin materials like pig iron, direct reduced iron, etc.,” he says.

For the time being, global trade issues are affecting the supply chain that Waupaca is part of.

Powell says, “The industry supports a global supply chain. Components and commodities move all over the globe.” However, tariffs have affected U.S. metal producers’ ability to sell globally, he adds. “The economic conditions created by tariffs artificially decrease demand with fewer buyers. This puts all the control in the U.S. mill market. We have seen dramatic raw material price increases recently. We expect this volatility will continue in 2021, which began in December 2020.”

One might think that Waupaca Foundry would find the growth in electric vehicle (EV) demand and production a potential threat; however, the company does not see it as such for a number of reasons.

“Waupaca Foundry produces iron castings for both on- and off-highway vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICEs),” Powell says. “The shift away from ICEs to electrification is accelerating. However, the ratio of pure EVs—EVs that run only on batteries—is forecast to be about 10 percent of vehicles produced in 2030, and, until then, engines will still be installed, including [in] hybrid vehicles. Parts for internal combustion engines will continue to contribute to our portfolio.”

Additionally, while EVs may lead to decreased demand for some iron engine components, the company says iron castings will remain in demand for suspension, breaking and driveline components. Waupaca Foundry says a hybrid-electrification model also could present opportunities for new iron components.

Infrastructure impacts that arise from the growth of EVs could in turn increase demand for municipal, construction and other industrial components that the company manufactures. Because Waupaca Foundry is diversified across multiple market sectors, the company says it is well-positioned to adapt to this change.