What’s Wrong with Foundry Research

Roy Lobenhofer

In my dotage, someone was unwise enough to ask for my assistance on a research project they were conducting. As the project progressed (or didn’t progress), I became more and more frustrated with its direction. I perceived the way it was going, if successful, would result in something that would never be used in a foundry.  

I recalled a column I’d written about foundry research titled “Who Cares” Research complaining about the lack of interest in research by foundrymen. I went back in my archives to see what I’d said about research back then. It turns out most of the column was devoted to my justifying a then current research project being conducted by AFS. However, for the rest of it, it was interesting to see what I’d thought about research 30 years ago and compare it to what I think now.  

In the original column, I complained about the formal reports on research being very dull to read. Having just read a project report that is an extension of work George Goodrich and I did and then rereading our originals, research reports are DULL! As I pointed out in the column, some of the dullness is necessary. Including all the details about how experiments were conducted, the data obtained from them, and the logic used to reach the conclusions is necessary to be able to truly evaluate the validity of the research, but all that stuff makes the reports very sleep inducing.    

The other part of the column not related to the specific project made reference to how research projects were selected. I pointed out the lack of practicality of most research as then made famous by Senator Proxmier’s Golden Fleece Awards. At that time, I thought AFS was much better at selecting the topics.

So that was what I thought 30 years ago. Since then I spent a few years as the Vice President of Technology of AFS, been an active participant in a few research projects, and spent over 20 years as a consultant, mainly to small iron foundries. How have these years and experiences changed my opinion on foundry research? 

First, my opinion of the practicality (or lack thereof) of most research has strengthened over the years and now includes our industry. A lot of that happened at a meeting sponsored by the U.S. Energy Department. They wanted to learn what research was needed by the foundry industry. I watched in dismay at the meeting. College professors pitched the need for their pet projects as being critical for the industry, technical heads of large organizations tried to convince the Energy Dept. the industry needed research they couldn’t convince their bosses to support, and representatives of the industry’s societies agreed with almost anything in hopes of getting their share of the money for monitoring any research the Department might fund.

The people who were not there were the people who really run their foundries. I think I may have had more time on foundry floors than anyone else there, but I was not at the time the one who really decided what was needed for the benefit of the entire operation. Also not there were customers who could tell anyone what was needed to make them use more castings in their products.

Another change in my opinion of foundry research is it should be, for the most part, kept out of laboratories. The idea data gained in a 50 pound furnace can provide meaningful information about the operation of a 50 ton furnace is ludicrous. I’ve taken part in experiments with small furnaces. In order to get metal to a mold at something close to a reasonable temperature, temperatures in the furnace had to be much far hotter than they would be in a normal operation because of the temperature loss in the small ladles. Is that metal going to be “the same” as in production? I don’t think so.

Of course, if research is kept out of the laboratories, it isn’t as convenient for the normal researchers, especially the college professors. The grad students will have a harder time completing their projects and graduating. In my opinion, if the goal is to produce meaningful research, then the difficulty added to grad students is of no import.  If the goal of the research is to support grad students that’s another story, but it is well accepted “No one can serve two masters…”[1]

In summary, there are three things that I think are essential for the foundry industry to get more meaningful research.

1)     Get the bosses who are making the decisions to decide what research is needed. Let “the bosses” get their input from their technical people, college professors, or where ever they like, but if they don’t really feel research is important to their operation, it won’t be used no matter how successful it is.

2)     Take the research out of the laboratories and conduct the experiments on production sized equipment. Research will be more expensive this way, but if projects reveal information, it will be meaningful in production.

3)     Finally, while final research reports are by necessity dull, highly readable summaries need to be created for every project and disseminated widely. Who decides what is highly readable? I’d suggest a panel of “the bosses.” After all, they are the ones who are going to decide to use the research or not. 

[1] Luke 16:13

As always, comments are welcome and will be acknowledged. Email rwl@lobenhofer.com.


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