Atlantis Foundries well advanced in Smart Foundry ambitions

Last year Atlantis Foundries revealed that the company had embarked on an ambitious plan to turn the company’s Atlantis, Western Cape facility into a Smart Foundry. The announcement attracted worldwide attention in the foundry industry, from both equipment suppliers and other interested foundries.

As one leading international equipment supplier said to me when he was in South Africa recently, the management at the company that he works for thought they were well ahead in implementing Industry 4.0 into their manufacturing processes, but once they read the article they realised they were well behind in the process as compared to Atlantis Foundries.

“This is another major endorsement of the South African manufacturing industry and its ability to take the lead in an area that is so topical these days,” said Pieter du Plessis, CEO of Atlantis Foundries.

“It is our ambition to further improve the quality and cost position of Atlantis Foundries. The basic building blocks for such a concept are robotics, process instrumentation, and the tracking of components using RFID and other software applications. With all the data available and it being traceable to individual castings, the door has opened to enable the use of Artificial Intelligence for process control and inspection of components.”

Besides the major investment in the foundry Atlantis Foundries has looked at its entire operation and made improvements including the main entrance to the company

Atlantis Foundries can produce in excess of 160 000 large engine blocks in a year

“There is a relatively large amount of metal that goes into each product that we manufacture – on average 500 kilograms per engine block – so each time we have to scrap one it is very costly, especially if you take into account the complete process, including all the administrative work and the internal and external factors that surround one engine block. Atlantis Foundries export all of their castings to the USA and Europe, and with these long supply lines, any type of failure can be very costly if castings require rework or sorting at the customer.”

Live data
“Our target is to get to the immediacy of live data so that we can react immediately to the analysis that this data provides. At the moment we have about a one week lag but when you consider the several gigabytes of data, images and other information that are being analysed on a daily basis, we are well down the line.”

“As we all know the foundry process is complex and has many separate steps, with each step having many process variables that influence the quality of castings. Additionally, there are many different material input factors, such as sand and chemistry that can vary from batch to batch or supplier, that need to be taken into account. Metal temperature and pouring time are also contributing factors. All of these parameters, if they are not correctly managed, will impact on our objective of zero-defects.”

“However, you have to have complete buy-in from everyone involved and the company has to take the lead in investing in the concept, both in time and capital expenditure.”

“On this point I must compliment all our employees, customers and suppliers. We started this project over two years ago and it is remarkable what we have been able to achieve.”

Atlantis Foundries have recently installed a second GOM 3D optical inspection and measuring system

One of the first and the biggest robots to be installed was a Fanuc M-900iC dipping robot linked with automatic coating control systems, supplied by Proservice in Italy. Every robot has been named and this one has been christened Eben after the South African rugby player Eben Etsebeth

“As we said previously the corner stone of the project is the programme of automation in the foundry. The Fanuc robots installed by Robotic Innovations have become the workhorse to carry instruments that acquire data while handling or performing their operations. All the data collected throughout the process by the robots and the variety of inline instruments will be linked to specific castings. At the end of the process, the entire set of process parameters including operator information will be available for each casting,” explained du Plessis.

“This process data will be analysed using Artificial Intelligence to predict various aspects of the castings such as material properties and sub-surface defects. Atlantis Foundries have partnered with DataProphet, a Cape Town based company, to process “big data” in real time via machine learning algorithms to solve complex problems. Machine learning is a computer’s way of learning from data. It uses this data to develop an algorithm that can determine a number of possibilities, trends or patterns.”

“The pilot project using Artificial Intelligence aims to predict sub-surface defects currently detected only after machining, and to identify the optimum process parameters to prevent the sub-surface defects occurring in the first place. The current model has a 70% success rate to predict casting defects, based purely on the raw process data. Castings with a high probability of sub-surface defects are identified, and additional inspection and testing is done to prevent the castings from reaching our customers,” continued Du Plessis.

New equipment to aid and achieve our objectives
“Besides the investment in the robots, the inline instruments, and the data collection we also had to invest in upgrading and developing further all the manufacturing and material processing operations normally associated with a foundry. We can produce in excess of 160 000 large engine blocks in a year and we wanted to find a way to optimise our manufacturing process and reduce costs whilst doing so. When a defect is found at the customer, the cost of sort action and rework can become very expensive. In a process whereby defects arise through no operational fault, the main challenge was how to reduce such unforeseeable costs.”

The three station rotary curing machine was a unique opportunity for local equipment manufacturer Lauds Foundry Equipment to showcase their ability to custom design a solution for typical waste material. The challenge was, according to Lauds, to look at eliminating dumping costs to a maximum so they designed a curing machine to handle the “left over” wet uncured cold box sand that had been either thrown out during core production for whatever reason or, at shift change when the tooling or head is being set. The remaining one-ton of uncured material will be transported to the feed hopper and loaded for curing. After curing, the half round moulds are transported to the Lauds reclamations systems where they are then processed through the 5 tons per hour primary and the secondary reclamation systems. The material processed is approximately 95% recoverable with the 5% being fines, fractured sand and resin that is extracted out and dumped. What was important was to maintain a constant below 1% L.0.I. going back into the main feed, which Lauds have successfully achieved. All scrap core sets are processed through the Lauds primary and secondary reclamation systems, so Atlantis Foundries are able to recover all the reject material and send it back pneumatically over 175 metres into the main stream back at the core shop

The final operation in the core shop is the palletising of the core assemblies prior to storage. For this operation a Fanuc M-900iC robot is used. In future, an instrument will be fitted that carries out a dimensional assessment of the core package. Robotic Innovations installed the system

“If you don’t pay attention to and invest in your business, global competition and cheap imports will strangle your business. Besides you can’t achieve your objective of zero-defects if you don’t have the tools to manufacture quality products.”

“In 2016 we focused a bit more on process and capacity building with the installation of a new core drying oven, two new Foundry Automation core shooters, a new sand drier and de-coring machines. Mould line improvements included the installation of a second ABP Induction Systems pressure pour furnace and a fourth ABP Induction Systems power pack.”

“In 2017 we stepped up our investment programme. We started off on the quality and inspection side with the installation of a new Tinius Olsen tensile tester, a new air conditioner for the temperature controlled measuring room and a new GOM 3D optical inspection and measuring system. We also installed a fixed laser for continuous temperature monitoring during the pouring process and an automated visual inspection system to detect surface defects using eight cameras connected to an Artificial Intelligence system.”

“On the capital equipment side, besides automating with the robots for handling processes in the core shop such as coating and dipping, drying and drilling of the core vents, a large amount was spent on a new G-U-T chromite reclamation plant, a sand reclamation plant that was supplied by Lauds Foundry Equipment and a sand curing plant, also supplied by Lauds Foundry Equipment. Additionally, in the fettling department we automated as best possible with conveyors and rollovers for safety and operator fatigue reasons.”

Mould line improvements included the installation of a second ABP Induction Systems pressure pour furnace and a fourth ABP Induction Systems power pack

A large engine block mould

“During the latter half of 2017 we installed an off-loading robot at the shotblast machine. In addition to off-loading, the robot will use the spare cycle time to perform fettling of the front and rear face of a casting. In total we spent over R10 million just in the upgrading of the shotblasting department and that did not include buying new shot blasting equipment.”

“Besides finding the correct process parameters for castings to be a daunting challenge for any foundryman, fettling of castings can be a major bottle neck in any foundry too. It is a time consuming process as well as one that is physically demanding on the employees. With automation replacing manual repetitive processes, foundries are now achieving better productivity along with consistency in output.”

“Currently we have a Fanuc R-2000iC robot in test phase in the fettling department, which will be used for testing and developing future fettling cells, primarily to be installed in order to alleviate the harsh working conditions required of the current manual fettling processes.”

“It should be noted that there is a strong philosophy at Atlantis Foundries that when installing robotics, which reduce the requirement for manpower, our firm commitment is that all installations are balanced through natural attrition, training of new skills and redeployment, meaning that to date no retrenchments have been made as a direct result of the new technology being installed.”

Projects for 2018
“One of our major projects this year is to move and improve the flow of the fettling department. We have already started on the automation of the fettling cells, and this will be enhanced further by moving the department away from areas where it is currently causing contamination and be closer to the finishing department. More importantly the ultimate objective is to increase capacity and reduce the amount of defects leaving the factory.”

The sand reclamation plant that was supplied by Lauds Foundry Equipment

G-U-T installed a 4-step chromite separation plant with a capacity of 7.5 TPH. In comparison with silica sand chromite sand features a higher temperature resistance and a better thermal conductivity and increases core weight because of higher bulk density. These attributes predestinate this kind of sand especially for no-bake moulds with high material accumulation and for casting materials with high casting temperatures as they are for example in steel casting. On the one hand chromite sand guarantees a high quality for several casting products, on the other hand this kind of sand amounts the cost of moulding material, if there is no internal circuit. Chromite sand is around a multiple more expensive than silica sand. The amalgamation of chromite sand and silica sand, which arises inevitably at the shake-out station, may lead to quality problems of the casting, in case of reuse of the reclaimed sand.

With G-U-T plants chrome ore sand can be separated and sorted from silica sand and can easily be re-used in the sand circuit for cores and moulds. The separation of single grained and dust-free sands occurs in four steps by a combined technology, two magnet-steps and “density-separation”, as well as screening technology.

In the first separation step silica sand is separated by a high power magnetic drum from the magnetic particles. The silica sand can be reused directly in the sand circuit. The magnetic particles pass through the next three steps of the plant, where the chromite sand is refined. During this process step subversive elements like exothermic riser material are eliminated to a large extent from the sand. This procedure makes an important contribution to the amelioration of the casting’s surface. Unique G-U-T separation technology allows for maximum purity of the separated sand in combination with removal of degenerated chromite, which can cause surface defects if they remain in the sand system. G-U-T have installed 60 of these plants worldwide

“It will also involve the investment in more Fanuc robots for the actual fettling, measuring of the individual blocks and loading/off-loading of blocks in the machining department. Again Robotic Innovations are very involved in defining the parameters to make processing and data collection optimal.”

Safety, environment and infrastructure
“Safety, environment and infrastructure development are also areas that you cannot neglect when embarking on a programme such as ours.”

“We have upgraded all fire suppression systems but more importantly we now have our own 15-man fire-fighting team onsite, trained by the local fire department. All employees have also gone through safety training and will continue to do so.”

“Every single person, employee, supplier or visitor is now tested for alcohol before entering the facility and remarkably we have seen a 60% drop in human related accidents in the foundry since introducing the system. We have also recently become a non-smoking facility.”

During the latter half of 2017, Atlantis Foundries installed an off-loading robot at the shotblast machine. In addition to off-loading, the robot will use the spare cycle time to perform fettling of the front and rear face of the casting

In 2016 Atlantis Foundries installed a new fluidised bed sand drier

“We fall into the Western Cape, an area that has been experiencing severe water shortages. We have spent over R3 million on reducing our water usage in all areas of the plant, including the Business Park. Today our water consumption is only 30% of our pre-drought usage. Atlantis Foundries has applied for a water use license and plans to install boreholes and a reverse osmosis plant to enable Atlantis Foundries to go ‘off-the-grid’ and reduce the burden on the municipal water supply.”

Future developments
“Although the core of all our improvements and investments has been to optimise our manufacturing process and reduce costs whilst doing so, ultimately leading to a reduction in scrap and an improvement in quality, we also have in mind plans to increase our capacity and diversify into other cast components.”

“Whilst Daimler AG is our largest customer and will most likely remain so going forward, we are too reliant on a single customer scenario. We are now regarded as a benchmark foundry by Daimler AG. However, we still need to increase our business with customers whom we previously manufactured products for and also secure new ones. The truck market generally goes through a seven year cycle and this cycle has just reached the bottom and we are starting to see movement in the US and Europe. Big trucks follow this same cycle, which is where we currently play.”

Engine blocks moving through the foundry

Engine blocks ready for export

“In 2015 we cast 79 000 tons of metal and this reduced to 65 000 tons in the 2016/17 period due the decline in the market. We forecast that we will see a slight increase in 2018, up to 67 000 tons but we are planning to increase our capacity for the new demand cycle that has started.”

“When we embarked on this voyage of discovery to become a Smart Foundry, we did not realise how exciting it would be with all the learning curves and possibilities that are involved. We are not saying that we are pioneers in our industry but we now know plenty more than most when it comes to large data collection, how you can use it, artificial intelligence, simulation and automation,” concluded du Plessis.

For further details contact Atlantis Foundries on TEL: 021 573 7200 or visit