Toronto, Ont. – We don’t always give ourselves the credit we deserve, but Canada has some of the best manufacturing facilities in the world. And one of them is where you’d probably never expect to find it, neatly tucked away behind a plain, flat green façade in Toronto’s west end.
It’s Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Etobicoke Casting Plant, and it uses high-tech materials and processes to make parts that go into almost every vehicle the company sells in North America. Only Viper and Fiat vehicles are off its list.
“We’re considered one of the safest diecast plants in the world,” says Jerry Peterson, the facility’s plant manager. “We’ve won safety and quality awards, and we’re very proud of what we do here.”
The plant dates from 1942, when it was built by the Canadian government to make supplies for the Second World War. Operated by Alcan Aluminum, it made moulds for military aircraft parts.
Chrysler bought the factory in 1964, an announcement deemed important enough that it made the cover of the U.S. magazine Time, and used it to make pistons and castings. Now fast-forward a couple of decades, to the dark days of the recession and Chrysler’s bankruptcy. In 2009, it was announced that the plant would be shuttered within three years.
But Fiat saw promise in it, and in 2010, the plant received an injection of $27.2 million to begin production of front crossmembers for the Chrysler 200, Jeep Cherokee, and Dodge Dart.
Finished crossmembers wait their turn to go through the quality control process
The current facility covers 280,000 square feet and sits on 27 acres, giving it room to expand in future if necessary. The original 1942 structure is still part of it, since it was less expensive to incorporate it than to demolish it and build from scratch. Of course, using it did present a few headaches. Some of its machines sit in deep pits dug into the floor, the only way they would fit under the building’s lower ceilings.
The plant makes 32 different aluminum-alloy parts, employing 534 people and running three shifts. That’s partly to meet demand, but also because casting depends on equipment running at consistently high temperatures. Production quality would suffer if everything had to cool down after each day’s run, and then heat back up for the next morning’s shift coming in.
The importance of plants like Etobicoke Casting, and a sister casting plant in Kokomo, Indiana that makes engine and transmission parts, is that aluminum-alloy components are key elements for automakers to reduce weight and help improve fuel economy. The plant makes some of its parts with a traditional alloy called 380. This is delivered molten, in huge crucibles chained to flatbed trucks, from a vendor about 15 kilometres away.
But 380 is too brittle for parts like crossmembers, which need some flexibility to cope with road shock. For these, the plant uses a high-tech proprietary alloy called Silafont-36, developed in Germany.
Etobicoke Casting isn’t the only facility that casts it, but it’s believed to be the world’s largest single user: the plant will go through some 20.4 million kilograms of it this year. There’s only a single North American supplier, and since it’s half a day away in Missouri, the alloy arrives as 16-kilogram ingots instead of as a hot liquid.
Molten Silifont alloy pours into a crucible
As a result, the largest chunk of the plant’s energy use goes into melting the alloy, and engineers do all they can to minimize consumption. “We regenerate the exhaust system,” says Inderpreet Rishi, the plant’s environmental and energy manager. “Some of the gas goes through a bed of silicon media to store the heat. In the next cycle, the incoming combustion air passes over this bed, so you’re putting hot air into the furnace instead of ambient air, and your burners have to do less work.”
By focusing on a variety of efficiency projects, the facility’s natural gas consumption has been reduced by 1.5 million cubic metres.
Using Silafont also required both new die-casting equipment and plenty of training. While the 380 alloy is simply poured into moulds and allowed to harden, Silafont is injected under extremely high pressure. The cavity fills with alloy in one-tenth of a second, and the mould halves must be clamped at 3,500 tons to keep them together. While it would take six to eight minutes to make a crossmember conventionally, the high-pressure system takes only two minutes.
The tiniest crack or interior bubble could be catastrophic on a part that handles so much road stress, so every crossmember undergoes two stages of quality control. First, each crossmember is X-rayed for air bubbles. A computer initially checks the photos and highlights any suspect areas, which are then examined by inspectors.
If it passes the X-ray stage, the crossmember is then sprayed with a fluorescent penetrating fluid. Next it is rinsed and taken by conveyor into a dark room, where workers examine it under blacklight. If there any cracks are present, the fluid will glow inside them and the piece will be rejected.
Along with a variety of other components, the plant makes about 3,000 crossmembers per day. After each one passes the X-ray and fluorescent test, it’s stamped with an “OK” and prepared for shipping.
Finished crossmembers go through the X-ray and fluorescent penetrant quality control systems two at a time.
Rejected parts and trimming scraps are handled according to the alloy. Regular 380 alloy can be melted over and over. Silifont’s unique chemistry limits its reuse, and the molten metal must be analyzed for impurities and the correct blend of elements. If a batch can’t be adjusted at the plant, the pricey alloy is shipped out for “cleaning” and returned as ready-to-go ingots once again.
Peterson says getting the high-tech Silifont casting process right was a steep learning curve, but the plant’s quality is high enough now that its engineers actually advise other facilities, including one of Fiat’s tier-one suppliers in Europe.
“We spend so much money every year training our people, but it yields improvements and it’s an investment,” he says. “There are a lot of things we didn’t know (at first) about making structural Silifont components, but now we’re considered the experts of the world on it.”