Casting success

Posted on 24 Feb 2009 by The Manufacturer

Precision Disc Castings is a manufacturer of high quality bespoke disc brakes for cars and light commercial vehicles. Based in Poole, Dorset, with a 220-strong workforce, it operates its own ferrous foundry, melting 1,500 tonnes of scrap steel per day to make seven million discs a year. Mark Young explores the challenges the firm faces and the solutions that have led to its success

The production and supply of automotive parts is a truly global industry and PDC certainly fits that mould. Eighty-five per cent of its products are exported with prominent destinations for its wares including Germany and Italy.

PDC’s market model is the production of bespoke, small batch quantities to high quality and specialist vehicle manufacturers. It provides for rally and touring cars as well as their road cousins.

The discs it makes are made of grey cast iron – a composite which alloys its main, named ingredient with carbon and silicon. It runs its melting facilities 24 hours a day for five days a week. Running around the clock makes the plant more efficient as less heat energy is wasted than if the foundry cools down and is reheated. In fact, the firm’s most recent Carbon Trust audit revealed it to be around 50 per cent more efficient than the average ferrous foundry. Senior site manager, Graham Starr, said PDC’s goal is to melt 24/7 to the full capacity of the plant at some point in the near future.

With an Environmental Permitting Regulations operating license from the local council the firm employs medium frequency melting furnaces which consume eight mega watts of electricity and are able to melt 14 tonnes of molten iron per hour. Everything is fully extracted through dry filtration meaning minimal waste and by-products occur. The EPR was introduced in April this year to combine the existing Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) and Waste Management Licensing (WML) regulations.

PDC employs two automatic, Disamatic lines for a fully automated moulding process. These produce green sand moulds – castings for molten metal to be poured into to form the disc brake. The castings are made to customers’ machine drawings and are designed by PDC’s own specialised casting design department. The company’s niche is its expertise in ‘core’ technology – the process of inserting sand into the mould for the metal to flow around and thereby create the gap between the two discs.

The economic downturn, which has seen a marked reduction in the levels of new cars being purchased, has had little effect on PDC. This is because as well as supplying discs indirectly to the new production market, half of its focus is on meeting the needs of replacement supply. “Our market share has been stabilised because with the lack of demand for new cars, as only makes sense, there is a heightened requirement for replacement parts on older ones,” said Starr.

One contributing factor to the credit crunch has been a problem for PDC though. In the last five years its raw material costs have soared by 500 per cent while in the same period its electricity bills have gone up 300 per cent. And much of those costs have not been experienced to such an effect by some of the company’s European competitors, leaving Starr bemoaning the lack of even trading conditions. “There needs to be a level playing field across Europe for us to compete and of course there isn’t,” he said. “We’ve been to Brussels and lobbied for reform through Euro MPs as well as our local MP and the Cast Metal Federation. We’ve made slow progress so far but we’ll continue to battle.”

In addition, the company is feeling the heat of the extra spending power of some of its foreign competitors owing to the weakened pound. While this circumstance entails favourable market conditions for exporting commodities in product form, it has meant an even bigger increase in input costs for PDC. Starr said companies from emerging metal manufacturing zones like China, India and Turkey have resources to bid inflated prices for steel from scrap yards here in the UK and this is pushing up the prices.

So under such testing conditions the efficiency measures PDC has introduced have become invaluable, and the company recognises the need for continuous improvement. To this end it has recently created a new position and employed a six sigma and lean manufacturing black-belt as a process improvement manager. It’s his job to drive quality and efficiency throughout the plant. Heightened product output will be the quantifiable indicator of the success of the resultant initiatives introduced. In addition the firm is in the process of entering into a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Bournemouth University to further complement its ability to improve. “The fact that our Carbon Trust audit shows we are 50 per cent more efficient than the average cast iron foundry is testament to the initiatives we’ve put in place thus far but it also means it’s now difficult for us to improve further. But we will because we know we have to,” said Starr.

PDC has been running a kaizen continuous improvement programme for seven years. “We will now continue with that,” added Starr. “It’s about step-by-step, minor improvements and a strict energy saving policy. But all-in-all we pride ourselves that we are one of the most efficient plants in the world at melting scrap steel for iron castings and it’s those innovative, world class melting techniques to thank for that achievement.”

International standards are used to maintain efficiency. The company complies with ISO 9001 – the general standard for quality – and ISO IS0/TS16949, which is specific for automotive related products. It also complies with ISO 14001 – the international standard for environmentally friendly performance – and employs a professional engineer, Shaun Lindfield, to pursue excellence in these fields. “Our carbon footprint should be an enticement for our customers to do business with us,” said Starr. “It is a growing concern for people when they look for suppliers though cost is still the main driver.”

Linked with a training provider called Paragon ITE, PDC trains new staff through advanced modern apprenticeships to NVQ level three and provides full academic qualifications from BTEC National through to degree level. A membership with the Cast Metal Federation and the Institute of Cast Metal Engineers allows for further bespoke training.

Finding those members of staff is more of an issue than training them though. “The skills shortage is there and we have great difficulty employing skilled and talented electro mechanical process technicians,” said Starr. “Modern apprenticeships are ideal for us because we can teach them our way and these schemes should be encouraged with a major drive,” he added.

Overall PDC provides a model example of the fact that, in these challenging times for all businesses, efficiency drives, a strong product and a sound strategy can allow you to flourish in the face of adversity. For this company, breaking the mould has been about strengthening it. And while it continues to do so there will be no putting the brakes on PDC.