Wahl Industries revives casting of lifestyle products locally after purchasing plant and equipment that was moved to China in 2013.
Upmarket lifestyle products all tend to be heading in the direction of aluminium. This is mainly due to the natural properties that aluminium has over its rivals.
These include that it is the lightest commercially viable metal on the market and is also rustproof and highly durable. It is this lack of maintenance, and natural resistance to corrosion, that makes it so desirable. The purchase of these products means that you know you will own it for a lifetime.
Over its opposition, plastic, steel and timber it is really the most cost effective choice. Plastic breaks easily and is affected by UV light. Steel is not only heavier but it also rusts. Finally, timber is not really suited to outdoor use, and the constant need for varnish also presents a time constraint on our already busy lives.
Regent Outdoor Furniture in a lifestyle setting
The now defunct Cape Town company, Outdoor Lifestyle, had been manufacturing quality contemporary aluminium furniture for over 20 years. Besides being firmly established in the South African market, the company’s products were being exported to the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Australia.
It was therefore surprising when the owners decided to relocate the business, including all the manufacturing plant and equipment, to China in 2013. Citing increased labour costs, the weak rand, high cost of raw materials, no assistance from government and imports from China making the company uncompetitive, it was therefore ‘forced’ to leave South Africa. At the time the company employed over 100 staff.
This ill-fated decision led to the demise of the company as the big plans to start manufacturing in China never materialised.
The establishment of Regent Outdoor Furniture
Aluminium tilt and gravity casting and light fixture manufacturer Wahl Industries, based in Longdale, Gauteng, got to hear about the closure of the company in China and that all the equipment, fixtures and dies were available for purchase.
With all the different legs, arms and other components that Regent Outdoor Furniture casts, a total of 50 different dies make up the range
“We decided to visit China and see if there was anything worth salvaging as we had heard that all the equipment, fixtures and dies had been exposed to the elements as they had been stored outside,” said Leonard de Lange, Wahl Industries’ Director of Operations.
“I had worked for Outdoor Lifestyle in Cape Town for a number of years before joining Wahl Industries in 2013, so I have plenty of experience with the manufacturing operation and processes. We visited in December 2015 and were appalled at the condition of everything, but we could see the potential.”
“A decision was made and the procedure of shipping everything back to South Africa began.”
Wahl Industries has its roots dating back to 1943 when Lawrence (Lorrie) Wahl senior established S.A. Clock Manufacturers producing tower clocks and cast church bells. The focus moved to gravity die cast (permanent mould) aluminium irrigation fittings in the 1960’s when agriculture began to focus on more efficient use of water resources. Lorrie’s sons Neville and Gavin subsequently joined the company, and later Neville’s sons Randal and Lawrence began working for the company. Some years later, Chantal Dawtrey, Neville’s daughter, became involved in the company.
Aluminium components that make up the outdoor furniture
Today the company manufactures a wide range of castings and extrusion products for the automotive, irrigation, catering, general engineering, furniture and lighting industries, is ISO 9001:2008 certified and is run by Randal Wahl, who is the Managing Director.
“You could say that there is a bias towards the outdoor lifestyle in our current product mix. Between our irrigation and lighting products, a large portion of them are used in an outdoor setting. However, this was not the motivating factor for us to contemplate manufacturing outdoor furniture. We needed to up the tonnage of metal being processed in our foundry, and coupled with Leonard’s experience in outdoor furniture manufacture it motivated us to do some research,” explained Randal Wahl.
“The trends in garden furniture have come a long way in the last 20 years, with style and comfort being two of the most important factors, whether it be for indoor or outdoor use. South Africa has an environment and climate that lends itself to entertaining, relaxing and enjoying the outdoor lifestyle. We have the bush, beaches, mountains and space and our long summers increase our vitamin D exposure benefits.”
Aluminium chairs that have been fettled and welded before being sent for powder coating
“No South African home is complete without a patio, deck or veranda to bridge the gap between inside and out. Outdoor living space forms an important aspect of our lifestyles, and the furniture you choose to fit in with the mix of your décor or style can add another dimension to your enjoyment. The type of patio you have will ultimately determine what kind of outdoor furniture you can purchase. If you have an exposed area it would make sense to buy furniture that will weather rain and heat, like cast aluminium.”
“Being UV-resistant and rustproof you are assured of the long-lasting beauty of cast aluminium furniture. It is durable and sturdy, yet lightweight, and will continue to look good as the years pass with minimal maintenance. Decorators and designers love it because it can be manufactured to look classic or modern, casual or formal.”
Relocating from China
“One of the most abundant frame materials for outdoor patio furniture in today’s market is cast aluminium. Essentially, there are two different types of cast aluminium production used for patio furniture. Sand cast and gravity die cast. Each type offers a variety of benefits and features making it tough to say that one type is superior to the other,” explains Leonard de Lange.
Legs that have been cast in aluminium
“Sand casting is by far the most common type of cast aluminium you’ll find being used in patio furniture today because manufacturers can build these casts quickly and at a relatively low cost. They tend to be very popular among newer companies as well as those experimenting with new styles and designs.”
“Gravity die casting requires a mould to be made from a hardened tool steel because it must withstand the high temperature and pressure of forcing the molten metal into the mould. Because of this high pressure, die castings typically have a uniform wall thickness, more defined details and a wide variety of surface finishes or textures that can be applied. However, the cost of the mould is expensive.”
“The set up time for die casting outdoor furniture is much longer than sand casting moulds and the cost is much higher. However, if the furniture collection is very successful and will be around for a long time, manufacturers can find there is a better payoff in investing in the die cast process because the same moulds can be used over and over before replacement or re-tooling is needed. Additionally, because the entire process is automated, high speed production can be achieved.”
A general view of the Wahl Industries foundry
“As mentioned earlier, you’d be hard pressed to claim, definitively, one method is better than the other. It’s all depends on what a manufacturer is trying to achieve with their patio furniture. Are they trying to produce a lower cost product? Does the product feature fine detailing? Will the furniture collection be around for a long time, or is it something they’ll produce for one season?”
“You can also cast furniture components using low pressure machines. When we purchased the equipment this type of equipment was available but we decided to only relocate the gravity die casting equipment, moulds, welding dies and jigs because it fitted into our production operation. Besides the equipment used in low pressure manufacture is large and we do not have the space to accommodate it.”
“Our containers arrived from China in February and then the hard work began to get everything back into working order. Fortunately most of the dies had been coated and those that were not we have been able to restore. The equipment has been restored and we have also made modifications to it to make us more efficient in our casting and fettling processes.”
Training, additional space and staff
“We have been able to create 20 new positions on the manufacturing side as a result of our new venture. However, there has been the necessity for a reasonable amount of training of staff to take place and, in a short space of time. Sure the material is constant for both of the processes we use but for gravity die casting we are using moulds and pressure to form the component or product. A mould needs to be maintained and can weigh up to one and half tons.”
Aluminium table tops before being sent to the fettling department and then for powder coating
“Our current facility accommodates our foundry, a machine shop, tool and die making, fabrication, finishing, design department, showroom, an electrical department that wires all our lighting products, and assembly. This left us with very little space to accommodate the new project. The solution that we came up with was to build a 350m² deck in the existing foundry area and all of the fettling and welding of the furniture components takes place in this area.”
“Additionally, we have rented a further 450m² that now accommodates preparation, quality inspection and packaging of the furniture.”
“Cast aluminium furniture, while remaining affordable, outperforms all other types of outdoor patio furniture. Aluminium is extremely durable, and will maintain its structural integrity for many years. While iron rusts and wood rots over time, aluminium will not succumb so easily to the elements. Aluminium by nature does not rust or tarnish, so its original brilliance will last for the lifetime of the furniture.”
Wahl Industries does not just cast aluminium castings but also components for the irrigation and lighting industries
“In addition, the method used to paint cast aluminium furniture is superior to the paint methods for other types of patio furniture. Other types of outdoor furniture require paint to be spread across the surface. Over time, this paint will peel and flake off. It simply cannot withstand the constant onslaught of sunlight, rain, wind and cold. But aluminium furniture is powder coated, then finished. The powder coating process uses electronic charges to bond the powder to the metal, and then it is baked on to keep the colour on the furniture for a lifetime. The baking process makes the furniture resistant to the forces of mother nature, as well as making the furniture scratch resistant so friends or family cannot accidentally reduce the brilliance of your outdoor investment.”
“But for all of the durability of cast aluminium furniture there is no excessive weight added. This patio furniture is lighter than stainless steel and wrought iron, without sacrificing the structural integrity. One can easily move the furniture around your home to accommodate guests, or to reorganise the patio. The furniture is light enough to move easily, but still dense enough to avoid blowing around with every gust of wind that may come, which is more than you can say for wooden or plastic patio furniture.”
One of the dies used in the casting process
“Cast aluminium furniture also does not get as hot as wrought iron furniture, leaving your guests to enjoy the outdoors and the elegant design of the furniture in comfort. Plus, with all of the beautiful designs and colours that the furniture comes in, the owner of aluminium furniture can feel secure that their furniture has left the right impression of comfort and style on all of their guests.”
“With all of the benefits of cast aluminium furniture, many would be led to believe that it is a more expensive option than other materials, when really the opposite is true. Aluminium is a very affordable, durable and elegant solution for all of your outdoor entertaining needs. In just a short period of time, owners will be convinced of the superiority of aluminium, and they will keep being reminded of the wisdom of their purchase year after year, season after season when the pristine finish and beautiful structure of the furniture is maintained for a lifetime. No other furniture will be able to make these claims.”
“Within two weeks of the equipment arriving from China we were casting. The material we are using is LM 6 and we are casting six different chair designs as well as six different table designs. With all the different legs, arms and other components we have a total of 50 different dies that make up the range.”
Wahl Industries have developed their own punching die for the fettling process
“Each chair weighs approximately eight kilograms and a table about 11 kilograms. Designs range from individual chairs to complete suites. Once we start to ramp up with orders we are looking at casting between 15 and 20 tons of components a month. On the extrusion side we are looking at fabricating at five tons a month.”
“While preparing the casting aspect we had to source suppliers of the other accessories such as glides, adjusters, dampeners and cushions, which are not manufactured by ourselves. Fortunately we were able to locate all these dies while in China so we could get suppliers up and running almost immediately.”
“Some of the designs have aluminium extrusions cast in them and we have an extrusion fabrication department, so this was a seamless operation. However, it did give us the opportunity to explore options of extra products, and as a result we are now producing extruded aluminium tables as well.”
The company relocated the gravity die casting equipment, moulds, welding dies and jigs from China
“The big test came when a previous client from Belgium contacted us and ordered a container load of chairs and tables that had to be on his showroom floor before the beginning of the European summer.”
Regent Outdoor Furniture, which falls under the Wahl Industries Group, has access to six full time designers in the design department.
“We have had this department for some time as it is very necessary for our Regent Lighting Division,” explains Randal Wahl.
The Regent Outdoor Furniture designers have been using the powerful design tool SolidWorks for new designs. This is an example of a yet to be launched bench that the company is testing
“The designers have been using the powerful design tool SolidWorks that quickly turns concepts into a production reality. The easy-to-use software has ensured design concepts are efficiently engineered, put into production, and brought to market.”
“The development has led us to design new legs for example, and not just for the outdoor furniture market. The corporate office furniture industry is another whole area that we are exploring and have already started to manufacture legs for this industry. With the design tools available to us we can manufacture anything that our designers come up with as long as it is practical from the engineering side.”
“This project has been like a breath of fresh air for all of us, excuse the pun.”