When employees speak about Waupaca Foundry, they often describe their co-workers as family.
“It’s pretty much the people,” said Doug Draeger when asked what he most likes about working at the foundry. “The foundry’s grown so much that it’s hard to say family, but it’s a family atmosphere.”
For a number of Waupaca Foundry employees the term family is more than a metaphor. They have parents and children, brothers and sisters working with them. Multiple generations with decades of combined experience are among the more than 1,600 people who work at Plant 1 and Plant 2/3 in Waupaca.
The Waupaca County Post interviewed three of those families. They discussed their jobs, their challenges and their role as part of one of the largest producers of iron castings in the world.
This is the first in a two-part series on family traditions at the Waupaca Foundry.
Bigger than France
Waupaca Foundry employs about 3,900 people at six plants located in Waupaca and Marinette, Tell City, Indiana, and Etowah, Tennessee.
A total of 1.5 million metric tons of iron products come out of those six plants annually. That is roughly half of Japan’s total iron production and about 360,000 more tons than the entire nation of France produces.
If it were a country, Waupaca Foundry would rank as the eighth largest in the world in terms of iron production, according to Joey Leonard, vice president of human resources.
In Waupaca, Plant 1 has 586 employees. The 277,555 square-foot plant has a melting capacity of 80 tons per hour and a casting capacity of 250,000 tons per year.
Plant 2/3 has 891 employees, not including management and support staff. The 665,850 square-foot facility has a melting capacity of 120 tons per hour and a casting capacity of 470,000 tons per year.
On a wall in Plant 2/3 are spec sheets and photos of dozens of vehicles, ranging from sports cars to heavy-duty trucks. All these vehicles have parts manufactured by Waupaca Foundry.
Foundry parts on any given vehicle may include the brake rotor, brake drum, brake caliper, differential cover and case, crank shaft, steering housing, bearing cap and flywheel.
About 80 percent of Waupaca Foundry’s production is for cars and trucks. The rest is divided among agricultural equipment and industrial and construction projects.
These parts are made by pouring molten iron into molds with cores made of sand. The production process begins in the core room and ends in the mill room.
A foreman in the Plant 2/3 mill room, Bart Moericke has been with the foundry for 36 years. He uses a football team to explain the foundry’s production process.
“The core room is the center, the VMM (vertical molding machine) is the quarterback and the mill room is the wide receiver,” Moericke said. “Whatever they throw at us, we catch it.”
Moericke’s two sons, Brian and Bret, also work at the foundry.
“I bounce all over the place,” said Brian, who has been at the foundry for 13 years. He has worked in the mill room, the molding department and the core room. “I like that there’s a lot of opportunity to meet a lot of different people.”
Bret, who has been at the foundry for 13 years, is currently a service person in the Plant 3 core room.
“I’m out there to help people keep their machines running,” Bret said. “If there’s a breakdown, I fix it.”
Bret also changes the core patterns and occasionally runs a machine if an operator is on vacation or calls in sick.
“We all play a role in helping each other,” Bret said.
A core is a molded sand insert that is used to create the interior surface of a casting.
Sand is used primarily because metal melts at 2,800 degrees Farenheit, while silica sand does not melt until 3,000 degrees. Clay is used to bind the sand and a cereal or wood flour is used to fill the spaces between the grains of sand.
Inside a core machine, compressed air blows sand into the shaped cavities of a core box. A resin is added to the sand and a vaporized catalyst is forced through the core with heated air. The catalyst makes the sand solid.
A robotic arm pulls the cores out of the core machine, runs it past a high-speed camera where the cores are inspected, then through a dethinner that removes rough edges and into a wash solution that will improve the casting’s finish.
The cores are then loaded onto a conveyer and to the vertical molding lines.
In the molding machines, silica sand, clay and water are poured into a chamber and squeezed by a high-pressure ram into the casting’s shape. Cores are then placed into the mold’s cavities between the front and back half of the mold.
The core and mold are then moved by conveyor belt to the zone where the molten metal is poured into the mold to produce the casting.
The casting continues along a conveyor, cooling from about 2,800 degrees to 1,600 degrees until it reaches the point where the sand is shaken out. The part then makes its way to the mill room where eight automated machines grind the castings.
From recession to recovery
As mill room foreman, Bart Moericke is responsible for all seven lines out of Plant 3. He supervises two team leaders and 31 employees in the mill room and one team leader and eight people in shake-out during the second shift.
Plant 3 focuses on high-volume production for the automotive industry.
“When the economy is strong, we work a 12-days-on and two-days-off schedule,” Moericke said, noting that North American auto sales are up over last year.
Overtime is voluntary, but many foundry employees choose it.
“We have one guy who works 62 hours per week every week since the beginning of the year,” Bart said. “He’s probably one of the richest guys around.”
When the Great Recession hit in late 2007, the Waupaca Foundry began laying off workers for one of the few times in its history. The number of employees dropped to about 2,800 in 2008.
During that time, Bret was among those who were laid off. Brian saw his work schedule drop to two to three days a week.
“It was the slowest I’ve ever seen it,” Brian said.
After the recession, Waupaca Foundry bounced back.
From fiscal 2009, which began in October 2008 for the foundry, to fiscal 2014, Waupaca Foundry revenue has grown 120 percent. In the same period, hiring rose 44 percent to meet growing customer demand.
“While our growth is significant, what’s more impressive is the contribution of our employees who consistently drive value to our customers every day,” said Leonard. “We’re fortunate to have employees who have not only a strong work ethic, but a real passion for making the highest quality iron castings in the industry.”
Of the 1,679 total employees in Waupaca, Leonard said 60 percent have been with the company for 10 years or more. The median number of years with the company for Waupaca employees is 14.
Among his responsibilities, Bart has mentored hundreds of new employees, some of whom have moved into management.
“I keep a notebook with all of the people I trained,” Bart said, adding that one of his former students was Larry Somers, who is now the logistics manager for Waupaca Foundry. He oversees all the material moving into and out of the foundry, keeping track of 330 trucks per day.
“I remember the days when Larry was a kid bagging my groceries,” Bart said. “He would see me in the aisle and ask, ‘Is the foundry hiring?’”