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|NFTN Assists Foundries to Compete Better Globally
One of the most significant steps in many years towards assisting local aluminium foundries to compete on the highly competitive global market, has come in the form of a programme for the benchmarking of a selected number of foundries by the National Foundry Technology Network (NFTN), which is partly funded by a grant from the Government through the DTI.
Charles Rowe, MD of Ajax Manufacturing, one of the oldest aluminium foundries in the Western Cape, comments, "The main objective of this programme is to assist industry through an aluminium HPDC benchmarking and performance improvement project, facilitated by the NFTN in association with the Automotive Industry Development Centre (AIDC) and a leading aluminium HPDC expert, Dr Morris Murray."
Rowe says that all the participating parties will be benchmarked using an international benchmarking tool. The selected companies will be benchmarked against each other and then also against Australian, Japanese and North American companies. The benchmarking phase, as with other phases, will be confidential and each company will only be able to identify itself in the final report.
Rowe adds, "We have already had visits from NFTN representatives and early indications are that the programme will lead to improvements in operation and global competitiveness and add a most positive element to our business.
"The project will cover most of the technical aspects involved in casting and include amongst others the following:
the die casting equipment itself
die spray and lubrication
vents, vacuum and overflow
molten metal safety
examples of die design
tooling materials and heat treatment
"We have the utmost respect for Dr Morris Murray, having attended one of his previous seminars and his visit earlier this month was most informative. He gave staff some training on die spraying and showed how microscopic analysis can be used to improve casting quality and efficiency, which was particularly useful. As always, he is happy to disseminate his knowledge to the foundry industry."
Rowe concludes, "There are many challenges facing the foundry industry at present, such as an ongoing skills shortage, energy constraints and wildly fluctuating foreign exchange rates. However we have ridden out the economic storms of the past 56 years and with the guidance and expertise offered by the NFTN initiative, we are confident that we will not only be more competitive on world markets, but will also have learnt sound business lessons in the process."
|Quo Vadis The Foundry Tool Room
|Ajax Manufacturing is one of the oldest aluminium foundries in the Western Cape, having been in business since 1952. The foundry is therefore in a good position to provide a commentary on developments in the tool room, from the fifties to the present day.
Charles Rowe, MD of Ajax says, "The modern tool room is very different from that of five decades ago, specifically in the area of computer technology and modern machinery. However one thing that has remained the same, is the critical need for qualified and experienced personnel to design quality tools for the industry they will be used in.
"Unfortunately many smaller companies with tool rooms have not taken on apprentices, mainly due to the vast amount of administration involved to comply with the Apprenticeship Board regulations. This is a pity because it significantly reduces the number of apprentices that can be placed in an active training environment in this sector of industry.
"Some of our tool room staff have been with the foundry for more than 20 years, however once they retire there could be a problem with the number of people available with the right qualifications. The recent formation of the Western Cape Tooling Initiative (WCTI), which is the local chapter of the Tooling Association of South Africa (TASA), a section 21 company, will therefore play an important role in addressing the skills shortage. WCTI has already trained 16 students through Northlink College at its premises in Wingfield. Of these 5 have to date been placed in employment.
"TASA and WCTI in conjunction merSETA, the sector education and training authority tasked with skills development in various sectors of the economy, has a joint project called the National Tooling Initiative mainly funded by merSETA. This is through the discretionary grant allocated to the participating companies which was implemented in early 2006.
Client Liaison Officer for merSETA Western Cape, Nasir Williams, says," Our aim is to support the training of eligible learners to equip them with the required skills and qualifications to meet the growing demand for personnel in the manufacturing and engineering sectors, particularly in the province's tool rooms.
"MerSETA has a range of learning interventions that companies can participate in e.g learnerships, apprenticeship and placement of experiential learners within the industry. All these interventions require industry to become involved. The current project that we have is the one based on the learnership program. The contract is a 3 party agreement and is a one year contract at a time, which is renewed on a yearly basis as the learners progress and at the discretion of the employer. They begin at NQF level 2 and complete at NQF level 4 being equivalent to artisan status. During the course of their training there are regular formative assessments and a summative assessments at the all levels, in order to issue the learners with the relevant credits. The minimum secondary education requirement is normally from Grade 10 to 12, however we do accept learners who have completed Grade 9 under certain circumstances."
Rowe says that these moves are welcomed and can only improve the current situation where there is such a dearth of skilled people. He adds that an in-house mentoring programme in the various foundries and the manufacturing industry as a whole, will go a long way to meeting the future needs of tool room operation.
Rowe continues," In our own experience, much of the tooling is now done in the East. China in particular has become so competitive that many local customers use their services. This has obviously had an impact on our own tool room, which is not as active as it was some years ago. We do however still have the support of our loyal customers.
"Ajax has provided a full service to our customers right from the start, from development right through the production cycle. The tool room is our first line of production and it is very important that the equipment is technologically up-to-date. Quality dies are essential for superior quality castings and efficiency, enabling us to satisfy the demands of discerning customers. The level of activity in a foundry's tool room is often a good barometer for the future output in the rest of the foundry.
"The main difference we have seen over the past 50 years is the advent of rapidly changing computerisation and its dramatic effect on interfaced equipment. For example, the tool room is equipped with a range of modern equipment. This is interfaced with a CAD/CAM computer system, providing excellent 3-dimensional models for the production of dies. The tool room manufactures and maintains gravity and high pressure dies, press tools, jigs and fixtures. The tool room also has a number of lathes, surface grinders, four milling machines and a spark eroder machine."
The software Ajax uses can generate tool path programmes for the cutting of complex die forms. It can also be used for machining forms drawn as surface models in Edgecam or other CAD packages. One of the advantages of this cutting edge computer technology is that shapes previously considered impossible to machine, are currently cut directly into the mould or by the machining of electrodes using the digital data.
The set-up allows for rapid response to customer needs, especially these days when more and more people are becoming linked via the internet. The materials used in the machining of tools has also improved cutting down on finishing work.
Although Ajax has always focused on tooling for aluminium castings in the past, the company has found that certain smaller manufacturers required them to cut impressions for plastic injection moulding processes. This outsourcing of work to Ajax has provided the tool room with an ideal filler to augment their available capacity, which arises from time to time. Not only do they have the equipment, but also the highly skilled personnel required to operate it. Many of Ajax's employees have had extremely long service. This is a major advantage as it provides the company with staff continuity, which is further enhanced when the personnel are also dedicated and skilled.
"The current exchange rate helps to close the tooling price gap but perhaps duties on imported tooling is necessary to increase local manufacture.
"While supporting the Western Cape Tooling Initiative, we are also actively involved in the Western Cape Chamber, the Aluminium Federation of South Africa (AFSA), the Western Cape Institute of Foundrymen (as a past president), and the Paarden Eiland City Improvement District initiative, which includes security issues," concludes Rowe.
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