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2014 Metalcaster of the Year

By Denise Kapel, Senior Editorf
Modern Casting - Editorial / June 2014

As a 40-person job shop, Aristo Cast excels at delivering what others can't, from RP-based innovation to investment casting magnesium.

Aristo Cast has a reputation for successfully tackling challenging casting projects. The Almont, Mich., job shop's customers count on quality ferrous and nonferrous castings with the added benefit of a supplier relationship built on collaborative innovation.

Our annual "Metalcaster of the Year" award goes to a firm that exemplifies the best of North American metalcasting. Aristo Cast is this year's recipient for continuously conquering new challenges on behalf of its customers. This established job shop often delivers investment castings thought to be impossible and works closely with its clients to achieve their goals.

"You'd be amazed at the ingenuity of the people we have here," said owner Jack Ziemba. The company consists of about 40 empowered problem solvers who meet daily to discuss the investment casting work moving through the facility. Open communication is strongly encouraged, ideas are actively sought, and the flexibility to meet fluctuating customer needs mid-production is taken as a matter of course.

"Casting quality and turnaround time are the two major reasons we go with Aristo Cast," said Micron Precision Machining's Eric Jacob. The Saginaw, Mich., customer supplies Tier One automotive companies as well as end users in aerospace, defense and the medical market. "We're not a high volume shop. We do custom one-off pieces up to two or three hundred," he said. A recent project involved converting a sand cast and machined aluminum steering assist component to an investment casting.

"We buy various types of castings, and the quality of the prototype they provided was heads and shoulders above everybody else. Timing was spot on and it was very well accepted by our customer," said Jacob. His team works directly with Aristo Cast's engineers through onsite and virtual meetings, ensuring casting designs that match both the end use and the optimal manufacturing process.

Ziemba has been involved in investment casting for more than 50 years. He credits Gene Malinowski, the late coowner of Eutectic Engineering, for getting him started at age 16. At Aristo Cast, he's cultivated a skilled team of experts. "We want to be more specialized as we go, and that's exactly where it's opening up—the higher end, more difficult castings that require a lot of experience," he said. "Our crew is people who have done it, and our turnover is virtually zero."

Abandon Can't, All Who Enter Here

While investment casting production has been the name of the game since Ziemba bought the company in 1994, the business has grown into a leader in investment casting prototypes. Approximately 45% of revenue currently comes from the prototyping business, a notch above last year's 30%.

Aristo Cast was one of the first metalcasters to purchase a wax printer in 1998 - it was serial No. 005. Since then, the shop has added several more, as well as other rapid prototype machines, such as an ABS plastic printer used for durable demonstration prototypes in the early design stages. A small wax printer makes patterns for miniature investment castings such as jewelry, and another rapid machine produces patterns made from crushed Plexiglas (PPMA). The workhorse wax printer in the shop provides patterns for castings that require a class "A" surface finish.

"We don't want to do millions of pieces," said Ziemba. "Our bread and butter, if it's a quick hitter, will be between 5 and 2,000 pieces. We have a business model that lets us go after unique things with the attitude that we can do it. There's no such thing as we can't; it's just a question of how long it will take to get it done. We don't bat a thousand, but we have a very high success rate on first run through and we provide a finished product.

"We tackle the difficult jobs, and that enhances the delivery requirement and makes it more challenging. On a normal production job of 5 to 7,000 pieces, without any tie-ups from secondary machining or anything, a five-week turnaround is standard. That includes building the tooling in-house."

With no sales representatives, the company relies on word-of-mouth marketing primarily from engineering customers.

"We run very thin shells here, which helps enable intricate detail on the parts. We all use the same ingredients, but it's our recipe that allows our shells to have the strength we need with less thickness," said Michele Walla, who runs day-to-day operations.

Standard investment casting best practices are present, but the Aristo Cast team likes to work out new angles. The company has a few special tricks of the trade up its sleeve, particularly when it comes to working with magnesium.

Breaking Down Barriers

"We take a good deal of pride in the prototyping, and we also are one of only two that I know of in the U.S. and from what I'm told only seven in the world that are investment casting magnesium," said Ziemba. "Through research and development here, we've managed to overcome the issues with metal mold reaction when it comes down to casting magnesium."

Aristo Cast has not patented its magnesium investment casting process. But, it is in the process of drawing up a licensing agreement with a magnesium company in Israel. Although magnesium has a reputation for burning, the Elektron 21 magnesium alloy used in aircrafts has very low flammability, according to Ziemba. "It has just been approved for seat brackets in the Airbus," he said. "And when it comes to aircraft, on say a 737, for every 500 lbs. of weight they can take out of that plane, they save a quarter million dollars' worth of fuel. Magnesium casting vs. aluminum is going to be more expensive, but the payback is very good." The firm also recently formed a partnership with Materion, Elmore, Ohio, to produce shells for its AlBeCast alloy, which has a high cost. "Our magnesium inhibiting that we use for our internal product works very well for their alloy, as well," said Ziemba. "So, we're teaming up."

Bill Schmidt, mechanical engineer, Elbit Systems of America, Merrimack, N.H., has been working with Eric Ziemba (Jack's son) on developing lightweight parts for a prototype handheld military system. One of the castings produced in that project over the past year received the "Best in Class" award in the 2014 Metal Casting Design & Purchasing Casting of the Year competition.

"We are using cast magnesium alloy to help reduce weight, and the investment casting process allowed us the most geometric freedom and the ability to keep the walls thin in noncritical areas. Aristo Cast provided in-depth support and design for manufacturing, and they kept us up to date during the fabrication of our parts with progress reports and pictures along the way," said Schmidt. "The team here was impressed with the fit and finish of all of the parts and the end customer was impressed with the light weight of the prototype product."

Anticipating Needs

Another key to Aristo Cast's success lies in providing model customer service.

"We track orders so closely that we know a customer is going to reorder something before they do, and we'll start running it," said Walla. "Everybody's so tight in today's economy, they want to be able to place the order and have it next week, so we keep ahead of the game."

The company recycles its scrap, and every sprue poured is fitted with a coupon that is removed and sent to spectrometry for quality assurance.

"For every alloy and for every part, [production requirements] vary," Walla added. "The number of coats of ceramic depends on the alloy, for example." The ceramic shell removal process varies, as well, and the operators are skilled at making those determinations to ensure part quality. "We talk about each job at the beginning and the end, to discuss what works and what could be done to improve the process next time," she said.

With knowledgeable staff, a solid base in investment casting, a growing prototyping business and magnesium use projected to increase, Aristo Cast holds great promise for the future. Its customers know they can depend on its performance and willingness to take on the tough jobs.

"Henry Ford said, 'Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right.' So, if you go into a project with the attitude that it's too difficult or it won't succeed, then you won't succeed. Never let it get that way with you," said Ziemba. "I've set my goals and pretty much hit them all, but it's more fun chasing the goal than it is once you achieve it, because it's an end. And I don't want anything to end. I'm having too much fun."

Aristo-Cast provides completed castings with in-house operations from design through finishing.

“You'd be amazed at the ingenuity of the people we have here.”
–Jack Ziemba

Signage throughout Aristo Cast's facilities emphasizes the company's can-do approach to challenging investment casting jobs.

These are just a few of the rapid prototyping machines housed in the Advanced Technology Center building.

Aristo-Cast pours ferrous and nonferrous investment castings in two neighboring facilities.

Igniting sawdust over an investment casting after pouring burns off oxygen and produces a better surface finish.

This automotive steering assist housing was converted from a sand cast aluminum part weighing 3.5 lbs. to a 2-lb. investment casting, cutting machining time in half and reducing lead time by four weeks.

This 2014 Best in Class winning electronics housing Aristo-Cast produced for Elbit Systems of America involved casting not only the magnesium part but the cavity for the wax injection necessary to produce it.

The shop will add a new piece of equipment this year to aid the operators in dipping large castings.