Connect with Joe Fritz
Website: www.investment casting.org
Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce you to our guest today, Joe Fritz. Joe has been the Executive Director of the Investment Casting Institute since 2013. With over 35 years of experience, Joe has contributed to some programs, including the navy's Trident programs, the air force's joint strike fighter program, and Boeing 787 Dreamliner program. Joe holds degrees in engineering from the University of Connecticut and an MBA from Union College.
Joe and I had the opportunity to work together in Puerto Rico at his association's annual meeting. He was also kind enough to let me bring my mom with me. We had a great time together. Joe, welcome to the show.
Joe Fritz: Well, thank you very much, Lisa. We did have a good time in Puerto Rico, and it was a distinct pleasure meeting your mother and having you speak at our event.
You were extremely well received, and I had many people requesting that we share the event's recording with folks on their staff to learn from you about gratitude in the workplace.
Lisa Ryan: It was almost like back in the olden days when we used to have live events.
Joe Fritz: It does seem like quite a long time since we've been able to do so. The pandemic last year wiped out every live event that we had, except for one training program that was conducted in February.
Lisa Ryan: Share with us just a little bit about your background, and then we'll get into the details as far as what this last year has meant to you, your association members, and really what you hear in the industry. Tell us about you, Joe.
Joe Fritz: That's a loaded question. As you can tell from your introduction, I have a solid military design background. That was really a big part of my career when I first got out of college, working through things until the end of the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall came down, I worked as a design engineer for General Electric in the naval ordnance division. It was like this bright young man better find something else to do with them without a Cold War to be building apartments for.
I applied for a blind ad in The Wall Street Journal. Nobody ever gets a job on a blind ad. What they were looking for was an engineer with aerospace experience, an advanced business degree. A couple of my friends pushed me to apply for it, and I ended up changing industries completely, finding myself in the world of metals and material science.
Since 1990, I've been working in the investment casting industry and parallel industries I've stepped out in a couple of times. Still, I became fascinated with technology and the science involved in creating precision metal components. Using this process for the point that I could actually say that I love the industry. Around 1999-2000, a business colleague of mine solicited my help in looking at and preparing his presentation to apply for the job that I'm in right now. I was I got very excited about this. Mike, this is the perfect job for me. He laughed at me, and he said, you know, the only differences, I know the Board of Directors, and you don't.
In 2013, Mike picked up the phone, calls, and says, hey Joe, I'm planning on retiring. Are you going to throw your hat in the ring? After some discussions and a series of interviews, I found myself the Executive Director of the investment casting Institute.
We're a 501 C six nonprofit trade association. We have approximately 265 Member companies throughout the United States and some international. Our focus is on bringing first-off benefits to our Members, especially the smaller members. We've got a couple of substantial companies. Still, the smaller companies are the ones that really derive benefit from working with us, so we offer educational benefits we try to work up discount programs to support them. We offer networking opportunities. A huge part of my job is bringing people together, facilitating communication, and the ICI has afforded me that opportunity.
In addition to focusing on our Members, we also focus on the customer base. Our Charter aims to educate the customer on the benefits of investment casting versus other metal forming technologies. That's not to say that our role is to push investment. Quite often, people will come to me looking for a referral to somebody who can make an investment casting for them. When I look at their growth or speak to them, I go, you don't want to use investment casting. This is better made as a sand casting or a die casting, or a fabrication, depending on the configuration. We try to bring people together and make sure that they will be in good long-lasting relationships.
Lastly, I view is the third leg of the stool of what we do. We have three legs on every stool that is sustainable. That's very important to us. We work with young people. We have an associated trade association. It's a 501 C three it's a nonprofit, the foundry educational foundation, and they work very closely with the schools and young people. Through them, we've worked to support their initiatives and have direct contact with the schools on our own.
I can often be found talking to a bunch of high school juniors, and seniors, and sometimes junior high school kids as well as going to the universities, and it's very fulfilling when you put a spark, and they come and talk to you afterward that one thing to talk about the process, and the training, and education that gets involved with it.
When you start passing out parts and components that show examples of what you can do with this process, it sometimes ignites a fever in some of the students, and that's a great thing. I've been doing this now, going out to eight years. There are kids that I met in junior high schools, and high schools, and in college, and they keep in touch with me and let me know what they're doing, and they're smart because they're learning how to network, right from the start, so there's some goodness there, and it's very gratifying to do what I do right now.
Lisa Ryan: Now there are so many different ways to go in this conversation number one, I didn't know about your stalking your current job for 13 years. So, the other guy retired. That was pretty good, and succession planning was already in place. Still, I really like what you talked about the last time with sustainability and bringing new people into the industry because with all of the manufacturing manufacturers and manufacturing associations that I work with, that seems to be the main thing that they struggle with is how do you bring these new generations into the workplace.
You not only starting earlier going into high schools and stuff but giving them that that physical component, something that they can hold in their hand-building those relationships with those people. I continue to keep in touch with you, so obviously, that's working. So how are you not only as a person but as an industry with your Members communicating that same philosophy as far as connecting with the newer generations coming in?
Joe Fritz: First off, I'd like to point out that the industry clearly has identified that there's a need for sustainability. Every year we conduct a house business report. In fact, we're currently collecting survey results for our 2020 house business report. A year in review, but I can go, year after year, and I can tell you that the number one concern is attracting, training, and retaining new employees. We've seen in recent times, and when I say recent, and showing my age recent talking the past 10 years. But over the past 10 years, we've seen much greater difficulty in retaining those employees. I've heard stories of the from foundries where they've hired someone they show up late for the first day of work, and then they never come back again.
I had spoken to one foundry. This is a very high-tech foundry - excellent benefits. They have over a 90% turnover of new employees in the first year; we've never seen before. Historically, you go back to When I entered the industry, you would get in, and you'd see people in going into companies new hires minimum of a two-year commitment, if not longer. But what's a very curious thing is that when I walked into my first investment castings boundary in 1990, I noticed that the majority of the people I was dealing with were my contemporaries or older Okay, but mostly my contemporaries.
I don't want to say it's a sad thing, but the concerning thing is that I walk into a foundry today. Most of the people I see are my contemporaries. You would think that you see a lot more young people in the industry, so I've taken I personally have tried to sit back and try to understand what that is, and some people say, oh, it's the millennial phenomenon or its people don't want to get their hands dirty.
We're becoming a service economy, and I hear all those comments the United States was built on manufacturing, and manufacturing is our future, but it's a changing and evolving future. So you take a look at what I've done is, I take a look at what's exciting these young kids today, and one of the big things is additive manufacturing. I go to every high school, and a lot of the junior high schools have 3D printers, and these kids are clamoring to those classes, and I think part of it. Because it's not just an academic thing, you can put things into play and build something. You can do it in class and combine some of your teachings involved with that. I think they get excited about that so.
What I try to do, at least when working with these young people, is trying to make the connection because additive manufacturing is a significant part of what we do. Now some people view printed metal products as a competing technology to investment casting. In certain aspects, it is, but you print more than metal. You've print plastics, the resins polymers. There are all sorts of stuff that you can print. It all plays a role in what we do since the 1990s. For example, additive manufacturing was largely used for doing prototype work, where we would print a pattern instead of injecting a wax. Maybe I should give you a high-level view of how our process works in an investment casting process, which is also called the lost wax process. You start with a wax pattern that looks like the finished product with the same configuration of what you want to make and metal.
You take that, and typically you take several of them, assemble them onto a wax bar or something that we call a screw, and build a cluster of parts. Then they take that, and they dip it into a ceramic slurry, and back it up with a stucco, let it dry, and then they repeat till you build a laminated ceramic Shell around all the waxes.
Then they removed the wax you basically melted out. You fire the mold, so it becomes hard, and you bring it to a temperature that the metal will the metal easily. You pour the metal into the ceramic mold. If you break the Shell off, cut the parts so often, clean them up, and haven't finished the metal product. In normal production, you will build a metal tool to inject the wax into to make those wax patterns, but in prototype development.
It's very costly if you've got to build a 30,000 or 100,000 or $300,000 tool to work on a design that's changing so. You would generally get a CAD file, and you would print back then. It was a simple stereo with the graphic pattern, and we call to replace the wax pattern and build the Shell around. You can make parts. The customer can take put them in their engine or their automobile or so forth.
Do evaluations on it modify the designs, and so you get to the point that you have a stable design that you are willing, then, to cut metal on, and build a tool for that's work first got introduced to our industry, you look at it today with the evolution of the additive manufacturing technology, people are printing patterns for low-rate production. To replace waxes again, you're not going to build a tool for a run of 20 parts right, so it's still used for prototyping is used for low rate production.
But what you're also finding is now, you can print ceramics, so instead of printing a wax pattern or a plastic pattern to dip into a Shell, some people are actually printing the shells themselves with all the internal passages right out of the chute. Now is this a disruptive technology? It's more of enabling technology because the process is slow. It's not suitable for high rate production, and it's costly, but there are many benefits from it? One of the things I try to do when putting the spark in these young kids is to show them some printed patterns, show them to transition, and let them know that it can lead to many things. It also helps when you talk about the opportunities, and the availability of positions, and the long-term prospects.
I'll tell you I've seen the people who have entered the industry with high school degrees, who are now general managers, and Vice Presidents of companies because they've done what it takes they put in the effort, and they've done very well with it.
Lisa Ryan: Now, in that have you reached out to this is reaching out to the kids but what about things like guidance counselors or teachers or anything, getting into the schools for things like manufacturing day because it's one thing to get the kids inspired, but we also need to change the conversation with the parents. With the guidance counselor's so that they're not so focused on the four-year college degree because, as you just demonstrated with somebody with a high school diploma, they could be running a plant as part of their career path.
Joe Fritz: Right, and we do that, in fact, it doesn't stop with them, and also a lot of what we do to support the Integration of students, and keeping the students has also helped educate our members, and the foundry so it's a full stem to Stern, but we do attend the career days manufacturing days I had mentioned the foundry educational foundation they run an event every November which we attended support. I have personally spoken with career counselors and teachers in the schools I've been invited to speak at.
I've also spoken with the not PTA but the various school districts that are looking to get back into some of the more basics, realizing that the curriculum we have today is really straight away from the trades history is great, I mean, it's a very different world case in point, I went to a school with our business administrator Nora gamba you've met Nora.
Lisa Ryan: Oh yeah.
Joe Fritz: We went there to talk to these kids at a junior high school in Jamaica Queens, New York, and we get there, and it's gigantic school. The kids were amazing. That was probably the most attentive group we ever spoke with them afterward, I'm talking with the instructors and some of the counselors there, and they were saying, well, we used to be a vo-tech school. But now it's basically reading, writing, and arithmetic, but we'd like to get our foundry back up and running. I go, you have a foundry, and they took me for a tour, and they have a foundry, and those kids are hungry. Right now, it's used as a storage area for props for the theater group. I know they're taking steps to bring that online, and we have offered our technology and our services to help them out in any way we can, so there I think there's a recognized need among the academic community. The very fact that we were invited in, and then they made a point of showing me what they want to do, but there. I think that there's an issue connecting with the parents.
My father goes, you want to be smart. You want to get a college degree. You want to work with your mind and not your hands. My father first-generation American, and he had a vision for my future. I was somebody who always enjoyed working with his hands. There are many kids out there that do, and I think that part of my going to higher education was because it was my father's dream. I don't regret it all because I still get my hands dirty - mostly in my garage rather than in the workplace.
Having a desire to manufacture and see things made is not something that is inbred into you. It's something that you learn. You either like seeing things come together, building things, making things, and design things, or you don't. That's something that has to be nurtured. I have seen the kids who really want to do this up, but my father wants me to be a doctor, but no, my mom thinks I should be a lawyer.
I always ask what is it that you want to do because that's The key thing you have to appeal to their interests. You can't force them impressed upon anybody, and one of the things I always tell these kids I go, what is it that you love to do. Right pick what you love to do, and make that your career goal your career objectives, and, as the old saying goes, you'll never work a day in your life.
Lisa Ryan: We look at from when your father was going was getting started, and he wanted you to go to college, so you could have a quote-unquote better life than he did. But unfortunately, we've had two generations of everybody going to college. Now, these kids are coming out with 10s of thousands of dollars in student loan debt for either something that they don't want to be doing because mommy and daddy told them to go to college or something that they can't find a job in their chosen degree so turning it around and saying listen.
You have a stable job with something you love to do, working with your hands, great benefits, and very little debt that you will amass by going directly from high school to a tech school. It's directly into the trades like that, so it's just really changing that conversation that the one we talked about was two generations ago or a couple of generations ago where college was where you could. They don't want to say that you could actually get something from college, but there's so much competition now, and we don't have enough people.
Joe Fritz: That is being exposed at that young age to say, wow, this is cool. I can work with my hands. This is what I want to do, and having mom and dad be okay with that. That's very true, but that's not to downplay the importance of college graduates. You need the engineers; you need the accountant. It would help if you had the marketing people. Still, the real main force, the key people that make this industry strong and great, are actually doing the people who have a passion for it, the people who focus on quality.
The people trying to improve things, and hopefully, that's stem too stern from the person who was hired to push the broom to the guy who's running the corporation. Everybody would be great if everybody had that passion. But it's the people on the shop floor that really make things happen because they're the ones who are going to put quality into a product. They're the ones who are going to recognize when a product is lacking in quality before anybody else does so.
Lisa Ryan: What are those what are you, seeing as far as so what some of your Members are doing you've shared what you've done to change that conversation and to attract people but are there some best practices that you've heard from your Members are they doing something else that unique that might be helpful to somebody tuning in today.
Joe Fritz: Well, first off, one of the things that we see a lot of our Members doing