A casting company’s ability to achieve aesthetics and precision has earned a steady stream of medical parts manufacturing work for nearly two decades.
By Mark Shortt
A manufacturing process that can produce durable, aesthetically pleasing parts in a cost-effective manner is generating interest from medical OEMs across a wide range of product categories.
Forest City Castings, a company that specializes in such a process, has produced high-quality castings for the medical industry since the company’s earliest days. The company was founded in 2004 by Scott McRae and Mike Vandenboom, colleagues who had been working in the casting industry for some time before deciding to go out on their own.
“Both were experienced in sand casting and graphite permanent mold beforehand,” said Devin McRae, vice president of Forest City Castings and Scott’s son, in a phone interview. “They started with three employees at a 6,000-square-foot facility and quickly expanded from there.”
Today, Forest City Castings is known for its prowess in graphite permanent mold (GPM) technology. The manufacturer uses high-speed CNC milling to build graphite permanent molds, reportedly saving as much as 75 percent of the cost of building metal tooling. Forest City uses the molds to produce aluminum castings and zinc castings that are built to print for customers in diverse industries. Its build-to-print services also include exterior surface finish and assembly, McRae said.
According to Forest City’s website, aluminum and zinc alloy castings that are produced with graphite permanent molds offer “unique opportunities for strength, precision, and excellent part finishes.” McRae told D2P that Forest City’s graphite molds help ensure cast tolerances that are as good or better than permanent mold industry standards. In some cases, they eliminate the need for machining. And if machining is required?
“Our CNC equipment and machining strategies have produced high-precision castings achieving tolerances of less than 0.001 inch in some cases,” McRae said.
Die Cast Quality at a Fraction of the Tooling Cost
McRae was succinct in describing one of the major reasons why customers opt to go with graphite permanent mold casting.
“You get a die cast quality part in most cases, with tooling being a fraction of the cost. We’re kind of that middle ground for people who want cosmetics, or aesthetics, but don’t want to pay for a die cast part and don’t want a sand casting [for cosmetic reasons].”
Forest City Castings employs more than 65 people full-time at its headquarters and foundry in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, where it supports customers in the medical, electrical, communications, transportation, and industrial markets. The company also provides castings for mechanical hardware, robotics, and nautical applications, among others.
Examples of parts the firm has produced for the electrical industry include castings for light fixtures, housings for LED lights, and receptacle housings in numerous shapes and sizes. Forest City has also supplied parts for housings, chassis, pedestal bases, covers, and support brackets used in robotics and communications applications. For the industrial market, the company has manufactured heatsinks that cool motors on industrial engines, as well as components for air compressors and housings.
“Our process is the answer when looking to launch a new project, find a long-term production facility, or even replace a worn-out diecast tool after the volumes have diminished,” McRae wrote in an emailed response.
High Expectations for Medical Parts
Over the years, Forest City has provided castings for numerous medical applications, from medical carts and incubation units to ultrasound machines, hearing aid testing units, and lab testing equipment used for DNA testing. Today, the company continues to evolve with the medical industry, providing aesthetically pleasing castings with the durability needed to withstand often harsh medical environments.
“If something needs to be metal and it needs to be cast in a medical application, there are very few of those that we can’t handle,” McRae said. “Our volumes line up really well with medical devices and equipment, and our process is very repeatable, so we’re able to support their [medical OEMs’] production demands for many years.”
Why are medical OEMs often interested in parts that combine durability and aesthetics? The reasons have to do with engineering and economics. Many of the parts are required to operate in harsh environments, with exposure to high temperatures or corrosion risk factors like chemicals and moisture. At the same time, expectations for their appearance—or cosmetic value—are high because medical equipment usually carries a hefty price tag.
“Medical customers want the parts to look like beautiful crown jewels, but they need them to last for many years because the hospital or [healthcare facility] is buying a unit for $100,000 and up. They want to make sure that they can last in the environments that they’re going into,” McRae said.
Medical parts often require a combination of aesthetics and precision as well. Forest City’s ability to achieve both, while satisfying stringent demands in the process, has ensured a steady stream of projects from the medical industry for nearly two decades.
“I think it’s the whole package we offer, with the ability to cast the aesthetic geometry our customers are looking for, but then hold the really tight tolerances they need to make their units work,” McRae said.
McRae said he sees the medical industry evolving—as other industries are—toward using more automation in its products. Demand has skyrocketed for testing equipment and analysis tools during the COVID-19 pandemic, and those products are increasingly becoming more automated.
“We’ve quoted parts in the past for automated testing units that take out three or four of what would have been normal interactions with a human, and automate the whole process to give the result,” he said. “That’s where we’ve seen the medical industry going.”
Another shift noted by McRae is taking place in the communications field, currently being impacted by developments in advanced technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence. Although Forest City has manufactured castings used in traditional communications applications like server racks and Wi-Fi infrastructure, some of the company’s work has shifted from supporting the communications network to supporting internal AI applications.
“We’ve done a lot of AI support of communications for automated material handling and transportation systems,” he said.
Getting Out in Front of Design Issues
Driven by its commitment to provide “turnkey, premium quality castings,” Forest City offers a range of in-house services that reduce customers’ needs to manage multiple suppliers and subcontractors. In addition to casting, its capabilities include computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) engineering services, mold design and manufacturing, and precision machining, as well as cosmetic finishing, clear chromate, and assembly.
One of the best things about those services, McRae said, is that they help eliminate unnecessary delays in the supply chain. But they also help Forest City’s efforts to design for manufacturability (DFM) in support of each internal process.
“We know what we want from each step, so we’re able to help design [the part] and eliminate some of the headaches that would occur if a customer were to pass the parts around from a mold shop or a casting shop, to a machine shop, to a painter,” McRae said.
McRae said Forest City’s DFM process is probably the biggest benefit it offers to customers, particularly those who lack experience with castings or machined parts. Drawing on its years of experience, Forest City’s team shares best practices for manufacturability upfront, often bringing to customers’ attention issues they hadn’t thought about.
“We’ve got a really robust DFM process that we’ve really helped refine over the last three to five years. As parts come in, we know exactly what areas we need to highlight for our customers,” he said.
For medical customers, Forest City’s design for manufacturing assistance often comes down to helping them “design out”—or remove—potential issues from their designs. These issues may come to the attention of its DFM team after seeing a snapshot of all the components that will be mounting to the casting, or that the casting will be fitting onto. It helps to clearly understand the casting’s end use and the role it will play as part of a larger subassembly.
“The earlier we can get into that conversation with any company to help with the design side of things, the better it is for us and for them,” McRae said. “We can take unnecessary costs out of projects in areas that we could maybe leave as cast, that aren’t crucial to the customer. We can machine their crucial assembly items and help them design the prints and GD&T (geometric dimensioning and tolerancing) to support what they’re looking for in the end use.”
Forest City’s team is proficient with the latest 3D software, including MAGMASOFT®, which it uses to simulate and optimize the metal casting process. The software enables Forest City to show customers a picture of potential problems with their designs, such as thick regions that could cause porosity, shrinkage, or other part defects. Seeing this picture gives customers a better understanding of what they can do to help Forest City with the casting design to reduce costs in the process down the road.
McRae called MAGMASOFT one of the “key lynchpins” of the firm’s DFM process.
“Our MAGMASOFT software allows us to predict and offer solutions to potential manufacturing issues in the castings before we begin,” McRae said. “We work with our customers to understand their needs and how the parts will be used. Together, we can optimize the parts to avoid unnecessary cost and improve manufacturability.”
The software is used to design the mold, as well as the part. “We’ll use it for DFM first,” McRae said. “Once we get the order from the customers, we’ll put it through a robust process to help design all the gating, the risers, and the venting, right into the tool.”
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Dedicated to continuous improvement, Forest City works diligently to improve its customers’ experience and its processes. Its team is careful to avoid the trap of thinking, “What worked yesterday is going to work tomorrow,” McRae said.
“We’re always trying new things and trying to push the envelope for our customers. As we learn new things, we apply that knowledge to the next customer, the next part,” he said.
One of the ways Forest City tries to stay ahead of the curve is by investing in state-of-the art equipment and machine monitoring. The company’s facility stretches across more than 110,000 square feet and includes four Makino a51Nx Horizontal Machining Centers, one of which was added recently. These high-performance machining centers are vital to meeting customers’ increasing demands for tighter tolerances. Forest City also launched a machine monitoring system that helps execute continuous improvement techniques in real-time and allows for lean operation of the entire plant, McRae said.
“This creates opportunities for dramatic increases in OEE [overall equipment effectiveness], based on accurate real-time data collected using a true shop floor-to-top floor communication network that connects all machines.”
On its website, Forest City Castings states that it is “committed to providing turnkey, premium quality castings, with superior customer focus and minimal impact on the environment, for all types of industries.”
McRae said that Forest City has taken various steps to reduce its environmental impact, including installing 60,000 square feet of solar panels on its roof.
“The energy just goes back to the grid, and we get paid a certain amount each year,” he said. “It’s not going to reduce our costs, but it’s about giving back to the environment and using our space to [reduce] our environmental impact.”