By Eric Peterson | Jan 06, 2020
Aluminum and bronze casting, 3D printing, and prototyping
Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: Aluminum and bronze casting, 3D printing, and prototyping
John Wayne Reffel, Sr. started the foundry in Denver with his wife, Alma, in 1937, near one of his top customers in Gates Rubber.
"It all started for wartime demands, producing castings for vehicles because there was a steel shortage," says Rocky. "From everything I've heard, it was a mostly automotive, a lot of stuff for the Army, a lot of parts for Jeeps."
In 1963, John moved the foundry to its current location in Englewood and installed the furnaces the foundry still fires up today for traditional sand casting. "We still do the old method: pit furnaces, natural gas-fed, three of them," says Rocky. "My grandpa and uncle put those in."
The furnaces hit 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit for aluminum and surpass 2,300 degrees for brass and bronze. "It's always warm back here," says Rocky, smiling behind his prodigious beard.
Pre-made patterns leave an imprint in sand, which (with a binding agent) acts as the mold for molten metal to replicate parts. The process was initially developed more than 3,000 years ago, and utilized by Ford in the heyday of the Model T in the 1920s) but it's alive and well in Englewood today, with a few modern wrinkles.
Jim and Nancy Reffel, Rocky's parents, took over the company in 1981. A big shift came with the advent of increased federal regulation of ferrous foundries in the 1980s, leading to a sharp decline in the industry. Reffel moved away from steel and iron and focus exclusively non-ferrous materials: aluminum, brass, bronze, zinc, and alloys.
Rocky took over the family business when Jim retired to Arizona in 2008. "My dad's still involved," says Rocky.
The company still makes aluminum hose mandrels for Gates, as well as another distinctive Colorado product: the Denver Boot. The foundry has cast boots for the company that originally developed them, Denver-based Clancy Systems International, since the '80s.
It's a legacy that Rocky is proud to be a part of 75 years after Frank Marugg invented the Denver Boot. Once a violinist with the Denver Symphony, Marugg "was amazing," says Rocky. "He invented quite a few things."
Reffel Metals Foundry also casts tooling for Enerpac Hydraulics to maintain Boeing aircraft, conveyor system parts for Serpentix, nozzles and hoses for S&H Fire Products, parts for antique cars and furniture, and one-off awards and plaques, while offering welding and repair services for companies like Illegal Pete's. "I've expanded like that -- you have to," says Rocky.
In recent years, Rocky has pivoted the foundry towards a turnkey model that includes prototyping and finishing while embracing 3D printing as a complementary service to casting.
"All our patterns and models are 3D-printed," says Rocky, noting that the expansion into 3D printing originally came from a need in 2013. "My uncle was retiring, who was a patternmaker. They're few and far between."
The company is also automating its sand delivery method for the foundry, which has traditionally involved a shovel, sand, a lot of hard work, and $15 an hour. Now the company is using walk-behind tractors to automate the process. "We went through 32 helpers this year," Rocky says of the high-turnover position. "No one wants to do it anymore."
The company now operates out of 12,000 square feet and an adjacent structure that includes two rentals, and Rocky lives in the house next door that was once his grandparents' home.
The 3D printers are the latest and greatest gizmos in an inventory of machinery that spans more than 75 years, including a burly, World War II-era lathe and a '50s-era Wheelabrator for surface preparation. "I love this machine," says Rocky of the latter. "It's just cool-looking."
An in-house machine shop with a pair of small CNC machines rounds out the operation. "We're pretty manual still," says Rocky. "It works for us."
The combination of old-school and next-gen manufacturing has driven modest growth in the last three years, and he's pleased with it. There were more than 40 foundries in the Denver area in the '80s, but only about five in business today.
Rocky attributes the company's survival to its employees and its adaptability. "I've got a good crew," he says. "We've had to adjust. 3D printing really helped -- getting into new things. Going turnkey was huge."
Another adjustment involves strategic partnerships with product development firms like LINK Product Development.
But longevity also has its perks. "We still do a lot of stuff that we've done for 40, 50 years, same customers," says Rocky. "We're very lucky that way. But those people are going away; they're retiring or passing it down or selling, and you get lost. "
Challenges: Rocky points to the big three: overregulation, insurance costs, and overseas competition. "The biggest thing is we're overregulated, especially in our industry," he notes. "We're considered the same as a demolition company."
Opportunities: Rocky says he sees the potential to cast a wider net and diversify his mostly local customer base as manufacturers reshore production. "That's the opportunity: expanding this new model of being the middleman with design, prototyping, and first article," he explains. "Most of these jobs we've gotten were people who were overseas and brought it back."
Needs: "Finding good people," says Rocky. "The cost of living is insane here. It's hard to be competitive. We're a small company. We offer benefits and all that stuff, but it's hard to compete, though -- especially with the weed shops."