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Sustaining A 21st Century Foundry: A conversation with John Danko, CEO, Danko Arlington


By Newt Fowler
What’s it take to retain some vestige of manufacturing in America?  See more at: http://baltimore.citybizlist.com/#sthash.eIM8Wbmz.dpuf


What’s it take to retain some vestige of manufacturing in America? Can U.S. manufacturers adopt a technology such as 3D printing yet retain traditional methods that increasingly move offshore? And when a foundry, such as Danko Arlington, chooses to live in both worlds, how does it handle two very different business models, which affect everything from workplace to workforce. I recently walked through the foundry and 3D design and printing operations of Danko Arlington, with its CEO, John Danko, to see what a manufacturer living in both worlds looks like.

A Die is Cast. Danko’s history tracks that of Baltimore. It was formed almost 100 years ago in the Inner Harbor where the Harbor Court now stands. Danko made patterns, essentially molds or dies to be used in manufacturing parts, first for the B&O Railroad. Then Danko followed the growth (and nadir) of industries in our region, from Beth Steel, to Glenn L. Martin, to Ellicott Machine. It continues to make patterns, most recently for shipping, military and aviation casting applications, and its customers are scattered beyond the harbor these days. It’s a hot, gritty and labor intensive business, one of making molds from sand and then using the foundry to produce the shapes. But if you’re in the die/mold business with sand casting and molten aluminum on one side of the street, what do you do with the other side of the street to stay competitive?

3D Printing. On the other side, you install a 3D printer; you hire programmers able to work with design software and you rethink the die making business. The irony of Danko’s story is that this evolution was driven as much by the loss of a workforce as the necessity to offer rapid design and prototyping. As John explains, “pattern makers died out and no one wanted to apprentice.” Few wanted to work with the wood molds, with the result that Danko has an entire wood shop essentially idle from a lack of a skilled workforce. As John continues, “so we went to additive manufacturing to be able to continue to do patterns.” The impact couldn’t be more dramatic. Not only was Danko able to accelerate patterns for its customers, but “one CAD engineer replaced an entire wood pattern shop floor.” Workforce challenges drove the evolution, not the technology.

A Fluid Bottleneck. But as Danko accelerated its CAD and 3D expertise, the workforce bottleneck moved from the wood shop to the foundry. “Now machinists are getting scarce.” As John’s business evolved to more customized and unique needs, his workforce demands couldn’t keep up. “It’s hard to find the talent to make one off pieces that a 3D printer can easily do.” John takes a long view of his family business, and with these emerging technologies, he recognizes that “the old bottleneck was the tooling process, and now the bottleneck has moved to foundry and machinists.” It’s frustrating to think that this foundry is located in a city with the labor challenges we have and he has open positions for well paying jobs in the foundry. To meet the need, John works with ex-offender programs to place workers in his company.

Neverland. So Danko lives in this strange realm, a confluence of two worlds. One world is that of replacing legacy tooling. Dies that were created many decades ago by woodworkers, whose mahogany is worn from repeated castings. And another world of creating novel dies from a printer, a world of taking drawings from a customer and converting them into a die, not carved from wood, but from a laser jet. At Danko, there’s a massive pile of wood molds waiting to be reimagined digitally and new dies cast from silicon, and more mahogany molds arriving each day. These antiquated molds enable industry to keep existing equipment running with replacement parts. It’s a “legacy” business, as John suggests, that isn’t going away any time soon, but also one begging for a 3D printed solution. A 19th century problem waiting for a 21st century solution to keep stuff humming…

Temperature Swing. Nothing connotes the distinction between these two worlds at Danko more than temperature: between the hot world of the foundry, with its furnaces, sand molds, tailings, and the brute force to make it run; and the air conditioned world across the street, the world of large computer screens where software is manipulated to turn a digital design into product, one of printers effortlessly layering a mold to be taken across the street and formed by a process that takes us back 100 years. John realizes that he has a long tail on the “legacy” work of recovering and repurposing old molds through modern technology. But he also sees the challenges that lie ahead when he and other manufacturers have to increasingly face a world where printers replace foundries.

An Uncertain Future. As we finished our tour, I wanted to understand how Danko can continue to straddle two worlds and where the challenges lie for manufacturers like him. “There are challenges in costs,” as many materials and composites used in 3D printing can’t compete on cost with traditional methods, particularly those manufactured offshore. John continues, “there are also specification issues, equivalency issues,” where materials that can work in 3D printing haven’t been permitted as substitutes for what is currently specified. Essentially the solution exists but it can’t be used. But the “huge challenge” for John remains finding machining talent. “There are many small niche manufacturers in the supply chain, without staffing strategies.” The work might be there domestically but the workforce isn’t… The frustration for John is that “manufacturing has changed, and continues to rapidly change; yet there’s a perception of having to make manufacturing sexy” to get the workers you need.

As we wrapped up our conversation, John assured me that “what we’re doing is a lot of fun.” It’s a new angle on something old; sand casting goes back to the Bronze Age.” But with 3D printing there’s “a rebirth.” He also mused that the workforce issue isn’t something new, even if we would like to think so. “My Grandfather brought ten foundry employees, Germans from post war Europe, to work in the plant, because we couldn’t hire locally.” Sixty years hasn’t answered the question of why we can’t get workers to fill the positions we have. It takes a lot of cajoling to convince both a machinist and a CAD designer to show up for work in Park Heights; sort of makes one wonder if we’re asking the wrong questions about workforce – when I suspect there are folks ready, even if undocumented, to tackle these jobs before they too end up offshore.

For more information on Danko Arlington: http://www.dankoarlington.com/

For comments about this column or thoughts on future conversations, let me know at: nfowler@rosenbergmartin.com

With more than 25 years experience in law and business, Newt Fowler loves advising many of Greater Baltimore’s entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, technology commercialization, M&A and financing transactions. He serves on the Boards of the Innovation Alliance and TEDCO.

– See more at: http://baltimore.citybizlist.com/article/sustaining-21st-century-foundry-conversation-john-danko-ceo-danko-arlington#sthash.477Xkk2O.dpuf