The company behind the iconic “Defiant” cast-iron wood stove is celebrating a slew of technological upgrades made over the past year that have transformed the once-gloomy Randolph foundry into a nexus of “lean manufacturing” in Central Vermont.
Investing millions of dollars in upgrades to a variety of systems, Vermont Castings—with the assistance and support of Efficiency Vermont—is midway through an energy efficiency metamorphosis designed to improve safety and production speed while also shaving nearly $100,000 off its annual operating expenses, according to the company’s Efficiency Vermont account manager, Brad Long.
“The conversations that Efficiency Vermont had with Vermont Castings encompassed not only gaining new efficiency,” said Long, who shepherded some of the financing and consulting required for the new upgrades. The conversations also focused on “finding ways to create back-up capacity/redundancy … [and] create a more comfortable working environment.”
Efficiency Vermont, which maintains account relationships with the state’s top 350 energy consumers, began the process of assessing the foundry’s energy needs with a front-to-back assessment of the plant’s “present state” and determining a set of efficiency and safety goals to be met at the completion of the project.
After determining that Efficiency Vermont couldn’t modify or address the foundry’s large induction furnaces—which consume much of the plant’s energy to heat 20 tons of recycled iron to more than 2,700 degrees—the conversation shifted to the plant’s decades-old industrial air compressor system, Long said.
“We ultimately found a solution that provided the foundry with some redundancy, some capacity, much cleaner air, a quieter system, better air ventilation throughout the plant, and some protection from a potential fire hazard,” he said.
The new system will save the foundry about $61,000 a year in electrical costs and will no longer ooze mechanical oil throughout the year, said Jeff Nelb, Vice President and Plant Manager of Hearth & Home Technologies (HHT)—Vermont Castings’ parent company.
“We are absolutely thrilled to death with the project, and the cooperation, and partnership we have with Efficiency Vermont,” said Nelb, who described the system’s improvements as a “night and day difference.”
Another night-and-day difference is the ongoing installation of new LED lighting to brighten up the dark corners of the foundry, said Nelb, who points to lighting improvements as one of the signature items that has lead to fewer workplace accidents in recent months.
“That [lighting] is in keeping with how Hearth & Home approaches all their facilities,” said Nelb. “We do a lot of work here at night-time. We do most of our melting during off-peak energy hours. So, to have the new lighting is a real plus.”
Bringing It Back Home
Nelb sees the massive reinvestment in Vermont Castings’ infrastructure as part and parcel with the parent company, Hearth & Home Technologies (HHT), strategy of being as self-contained as possible. Including, he said, the goal of manufacturing as many components as possible in the U.S. rather than overseas in Belgium or China, where they’d been previously manufactured.
“This is a strategic investment for Hearth & Home,” said Nelb enthusiastially. “[Vermont Castings] is the only stove plate foundry in the Americas. What used to be made overseas and brought here for Hearth & Home businesses, is now made here inside their own supply chain.”
Nelb also noted that the company was upgrading a variety of other systems to increase production capacity, including the use of a half-million dollar robotic arm and a small fleet of computerized numerical control (CNC) machines capable of finely milling precision components in a fraction of the time previously required, Nelb said.
“They’re pulling business back from overseas,” said Efficiency Vermont’s Brad Long, of the increasingly uncommon success the plant has enjoyed in recent years. “There are people that have been that foundry for 39 years. That is staying power that we do not see in this economic climate anymore.”