In business for more than 65 years, Hitchiner has become a leading supplier of complete-to-print, high-volume, complex thin-wall investment castings, as well as fully finished casting-based subassemblies and components. Hitchiner leads the industry in high volume production, reduced lead-times and just-in-time manufacturing, and has the world’s highest unit-volume investment casting capacity.
These attributes, and Hitchiner’s engineering expertise, make the company an industry leader in the global marketplace.
“One of our core strengths is that we actually do manufacture and add value to our products with our processes,” Chairman John H. Morison III explains. “We are always looking for ways to continue to manufacture in the United States and North America, and we are very proud of that. We keep as much of our operations as we can in the United States, but our Mexican operation keeps us close to a growing automotive industry and close to so many of our customers.
“We put a lot of focus on how to stay in North America and still grow the business, and we are proud of how we’ve done.”
Headquartered in Milford, N.H., Hitchiner has three locations in its home state, as well as two facilities in Mexico, and a European sales office in France. The company primarily serves the automotive, aerospace and defense markets with complex near-net-shape metal components. Hitchiner is a strong proponent of the investment casting process, it says, because of its numerous benefits: design flexibility, wide choice of alloys, elimination of tooling setup, reduction of production costs, reduction of assembly operations and reproduction of fine details.
“We make custom-made components for our clients and work with them to improve the components for castability,” Morison explains. “They give us dimensional requirements and we design our process based on that. We understand their quality specifications as well as the mechanical properties and hardness that they require, and we help them select the best alloy for casting.
“To ensure we deliver exactly what they need, there is a lot of exchanging of information and ideas – we want to produce the best product for their application,” he adds. “Of course, that also requires our operations to be the best they can be.”
Investment casting is one of the oldest metallurgical arts – ancient artisans used a form of it more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia – but Hitchiner’s ongoing investments keep the process modern. The investment casting process is highly complex and involves many steps, but Hitchiner continues to optimize and automate its operations.
The company says the basic steps of its process involve creating wax replicas of the desired castings, attaching the replicas to a casting cluster building the shell, casting using its countergravity process, breaking off the ceramic shell, cutting away the parts, and finishing the castings.
A Seamless Operation
Hitchiner has become the leader in investment casting because of its dedication to maintaining quality in its own operations with a focus on continuous improvement. Morison explains the company has “various projects under the umbrella of continuous improvement,” but one of its core focuses at this time is productivity. It brought in outside consultants and engaged several of its own employees to find opportunities for improvement.
“We have been using kaizen events to look at our existing practices and see where we can improve,” he says. “Right now, we have a high-level kaizen event for the ordering process. Looking at the administrative process from receipt of the quote through invoicing, we want to make it more efficient and less cumbersome.”
In its engineering department, where custom-designed parts are created, Hitchiner is changing the process so it focuses more on part families in an effort to become more efficient. Hitchiner has organized its operations and cultivated its capabilities, Morison says, to ensure it provides clients with the highest value.
“We have a foundry, but we don’t just cast – we cast and provide machining and assembly,” he says. “We aren’t exactly a one-stop shop, but we can provide operations and management services to provide value-add to our clients.
“Some assemblies go directly from our line to our customers’ lines, and we do some contracting with subcontractors to offer other value-add services and then ship to the client.”
For BMW motorcycles, for example, Hitchiner casts the necessary components in New Hampshire, sends them to France for machining and then to Belgium for coating. From there, the components are shipped to BMW’s plant in Germany. Hitchiner’s facility in Mexico produces castings for Chrysler’s Hemi engine, which are sent directly from Hitchiner’s plant to Chrysler’s production line in Mexico.
“We work closely with customers’ design teams to understand exactly what they need and how we can help them,” Morison says. “We even design the containers for the materials that we ship back and forth. We work hard to ensure it is a seamless operation between our clients and us.”
Hitchiner is well known for its innovation and process advances, which have helped to further the industry overall. In the 1960s, Morison notes, the company designed and built the first mechanized investment casting plant using automated shell-building equipment and conveyor systems.
Additionally, its counter-gravity casting techniques have been proven to have several advantages, such as producing cleaner metal with less slag and non-metallic inclusions, better control of fluid flow, minimized metal turbulence, improved mold fill-out, and increased efficiency.
In addition to improving its processes and advancing its technology, Hitchiner also is focused on meeting customers’ demands for lower prices.
“In the past, our customers’ purchasing people were incentivized to source from certain geographic locations versus sourcing based on quality, price and competitiveness,” Morison explains. “But that is changing now because costs are rising in those geographic areas. Now it’s smarter to get good-priced components closer to us than cheaper-priced goods from across the globe.”
To meet customers’ JIT delivery and cost requirements, Hitchiner is focused on regional buying. If Hitchiner manufactures components for systems that are produced in North America, for example, it sources in North America, but it sources in Europe for systems that are produced in Europe.
Instead of investing in expanding and opening new facilities in other countries, however, Hitchiner is more interested in finding quality partners in those areas that will help it meet market demands, according to Morison.
“We may look into licensing or partnerships to meet these needs,” he says. “We still want to keep our focus on our North American operations and other facilities.”
Much of the North American operations’ strength comes from the company’s employees, he adds, and Hitchiner relies on ongoing training to ensure their skills remain high.
“Constant training at all levels is key, and we provide regular, ongoing training programs,” he stresses. “We also offer programs for leadership development.”
Building on Progress
Hitchiner’s training programs will continue to be important, especially as the company further develops its capabilities and its competitiveness. Investment casting is an ancient process, Morison concedes, but Hitchiner has the strength and capabilities to remain the market leader and even build the size of the market.
As part of the third generation of the Morison family to run Hitchiner, he notes that he has a personal interest in seeing the company continue to succeed and grow.
“Investment casting, also known as the lost-wax process, is one of the oldest of the metallurgical arts,” he says. “The basics of the process were developed about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago in Asia, Africa and north and central Asia, and has been in constant use since, but it wasn’t truly commercialized until after WWII. It is an industry that is easy to enter, and is close to being a purely competitive business, but we will continue to be successful if we constantly develop the technical capabilities of the process. As we improve the process, it helps to increase the overall market size.”
Market demands have changed Hitchiner’s internal product mix about every 10 years, Morison notes, and that trend continues as the more simple components go away, causing Hitchiner to reinvest its capabilities into increasingly complex parts.
The company has a dedicated R&D center that it ran with GM until last year when Hitchiner bought out GM, which helps it to advance its processes. At this time, it is working to improve its process arc in an effort to reduce scrap. Morison notes the company might also invest in other processes to gain an even greater competitive advantage.
“We have been privately held since this company started, and we will continue to be private as long as I have anything to say about it – this allows us to reinvest in developing our technology. Being private allows us to look at the longer-term horizon, with longer-range plans and support them with improved technology.
“We plan to continue to build on the strength of the past and make this process new,” he continues. “We will continue to grow our market beyond the realm of traditional investment casting and invest in advanced technology, which will help us to continue to compete globally.” mt