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Champion for Better Extrusion: Interview with Paul Robbins, Castool

Paul Robbins-Castool
Paul Robbins, president of Castool.

Castool Tooling Solutions is a well known company in the business of supplying extrusion tooling sytems. Paul Robbins, president of Castool, has always been hands-on with the business and what it offers extruders. With a competitive streak that runs through his personal and business life, Robbins is constantly improving tooling technology at Castool so that extruders can improve their productivity and have a competitive advantage in the market. Many of Robbins’ opinions and the results of his company’s work have been covered in issues of Light Metal Age. In this interview, we learn a little bit about Paul’s strategy for Castool and the ways his company continues to evolve and respond to demands for better extrusion.

Tell us a little bit about your role with Castool and your history with the company. What is your background in the aluminum industry?

My father started Extrusion Machine Co. Ltd. in 1952. Castool was spun off from another one of our core companies in the early 1980s to focus on die cast and extrusion tooling. I started with Castool in 1986 in sales and marketing, and moved into general management in the 1990s. We defined a market segment called tooling systems, and made it our goal to make both die-casting and extrusion better.

An intelligent gentleman told me many years ago, that “if you are successful, it is your job to educate” and “if you want to be successful, you need to educate.”

The most influential article that we have published was “Who are the Superextruders?” which appeared in the April 1997 issue of Light Metal Age, which said that the best extruders in the world focus on three things, “Temperature, Temperature and Temperature.” That article defined Castool for the next ten years. We have studied temperature and its effects in aluminum extrusion to enable us to Make Extrusion Better.

Share a bit about Castool and the products and services it offers to the aluminum extrusion industry.

Castool designs and manufactures tooling systems for extruders. These extrusion tooling systems include: fixed dummy blocks with replaceable components; bayonet and standard stems; Quick Response (QR), thermally controlled, and standard containers; shear blades, clean out blocks, indirect tooling, etc.; single cell die ovens; lubrication systems; visual optimizing control systems; and system integration. Each one of our products — by design and with assistance — can deliver superior ROI to the extruders. That is how we derive fun from our work!

How has tooling technology at Castool evolved over the years? What kind of strategic innovations are Castool currently working on at present?

Extrusion has been changing, as are the markets being served. Extruders are using different alloys, longer billets, faster speeds, and higher pressures to extrude complex profiles for less money than ever before. The tooling system has evolved to enable this process, very often after failure. Failing can be a very positive motivator. The front-loading press with 20-50% longer billet has stressed today’s dummy blocks, stems, and containers.

The dummy block has evolved to work at higher pressures with alloys with different flow stresses.

The container has evolved physically to manage deflection due to pressure and time, and thermally to work with different alloys at higher speeds.

Single cell die ovens are now heating larger dies accurately, quickly and safely for less cost.

Lubrication systems are using measurably less lubricant and only depositing it where necessary while protecting the environment.

Everything is becoming safer and reducing impact on the environment.

Castool is working on visual operating systems, robotic handling systems, and a billet regulator that will adjust the billet temperature to allow isothermal extrusion, and still evolving our other tooling, equipment and systems.

Paul, it seems that you have devoted a lot of your work to “better extrusion.” What are the main ways that you espouse to improve productivity for the extruder?

Although it may not be our main goal, safety and environment must always be addressed. The bayonet coupling we use to attach our dummy block to the stem, allows a man to install a hot dummy block quickly. The clean out block is made lightweight and is used cold to make it easier to handle. The die ovens have reduced shell temperatures and use less energy to heat the die. All tooling items go through a very rigid battery of tests to help the industry, in most cases driven by Castool and not our customers.

Productivity can be easily defined by faster ram speeds, increased recovery, less idle time, and longer tooling life. Single cell die ovens increase recovery by reducing start up billets and helping generate better surface finish. Fixed dummy blocks reduce back end blisters, billet surface in-flow, and idle time. QR containers reduce energy consumption and surface defects, help maintain proper profile shape and extend tooling life. Our new lube system, which uses soap in tablet form, uses a measured volume of lubricant and applies it only where needed to release the billet and manage contaminants.

You have devoted a great deal of your life/work and company resources on the topic of design and benefits of a thermally stable container. In fact, you and Ken Chien, at Castool, are presenting a paper at the upcoming ET ’16, conference on this subject. How is the container so pivotal in aluminum extrusion and in what way does the design of the container optimize extrusion?

The container, because of its mass and contact with the billet and the extrusion die, affects the rate and efficiency of converting the billet into saleable profiles.

The working dimension of the liner bore affects the way in which the dummy block and billet skin act during extrusion. If the liner expands more than expected, alloy will enter the gap between the liner and the dummy block and be released at random into the profile causing surface defects.

The temperature of the liner affects the billet, the die, and the flow of alloy. We want the liner to be slightly cooler than the billet, so that the inverse segregation or surface of the billet can be held back and kept in the butt, instead of flowing into the profile. If the liner approaches billet temperature, Type A in-flow will increase and poor surface finish will be the result.

Unless dimensions and temperature of the container are controlled, it is very hard to compete in today’s global market. Ram speed, recovery, and idle time are all affected by the container. The container is like a Bully.

What has been Castool’s strategy to date and how may that strategy adapt moving forward? How do trends in the aluminum extrusion industry affect that strategy?

Our product strategy is simple: “To make extrusion better.” Our tooling system is evolving parallel to what we believe the industry requires to remain competitive. We believe that if we design and manufacture tooling and equipment with above normal ROIs, a percentage of the market will purchase from us. So product development is very serious business at Castool.

The industry has been evolving and demanding better tooling and equipment. Profiles are becoming more complex. Ram speeds are being increased to remain competitive. Down-time is being reduced. And recovery is being increased. Castool will be part of the solution for extruders to remain competitive.

Another strategy was to expand to serve the Asian and Middle Eastern markets two years ago, when we started Castool 180 Co. Ltd. in Chonburi, Thailand. The name is obvious, I hope, Castool 180 is located nearly exactly half way around the world from Castool Canada. Sales this quarter have been very good and justify our strategy of starting a manufacturing facility in Thailand.

Give us a portrait of what your work life is like. What is a typical day like at your job?

When I am at home, I wake up at 6 am then row and erg (ergometer) or go for a long cycle ride, and then drink two double espresso macchiatos. I am then ready for what is next. Castool 180 will have just finished their day, so there are usually many emails waiting for my response. Next is to venture into Castool, which is only about ten minutes from my home to see how the day is starting.

I travel about 25% of my life, of which about half is Asia and half anywhere else in the world. This week, I will be in Holland, France, and Tunisia for example. At the end of March, I will be in Thailand and China.

A day at Castool involves people, products, and events (good and bad). I am lucky to have a great team of people that we have built, many of whom have been with Castool for 20 years of more. We also have some new people that have helped a great deal. Ken Chien, who has a PhD in Metallurgy, joined us two years ago and has been a huge help with materials, tooling design, and analyzing performance feedback from the market.
We constantly scour our world for areas that we can improve. The market does not request most of our product development. It is what we believe the market needs to remain competitive. This goes for our own manufacturing methods and materials, and the products and processes used by our customers.

We also find new ways to be educated and to educate our customers every day. We write articles, publish papers, and make presentations to small and large groups — both on our own and with other companies that have common goals.

Because we are a global company, servicing well over 1,500 extrusion presses, the days just keep revolving. They never end.

I get to work with some very bright and interesting people, each and every day all over the world.

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