By Eric Peterson | Oct 24, 2022
Jon Young co-founded Vforge with his dad, Ken Young, in the late 1990s after working together at a large metal fabricator that was focused on the automotive industry.
The duo broke away to focus on semi-solid metal (SSM) thixocasting with customers making hydraulic equipment, off-road vehicles, and other products.
Because it's something of a dark art, not many companies offer SSM thixocasting services. "We might be the sole practitioner," says Jon. "It's a superior way to make complex, three-dimensional shapes that require peak mechanical performance and/or cosmetic appearance."
Vforge brings in commodity aluminum and converts it into a thixotropic material -- a gel or a fluid that can flow under the right conditions. "We're actually converting the grain structure," says Jon. "It's a thixotropic bar, and that is the necessary feedstock we then use to thixocast a part, a shape."
Dubbing it "gooey aluminum," VP of Engineering Chris Rice adds, "When we heat it up, the material behaves like a soft solid. It might have the consistency of butter, so it can be manipulated like a solid, but once we put it in our machine and we apply pressure to it, we can make it flow like a very viscous fluid."
It's also eminently recyclable, he adds, eliminating manufacturing waste. "As you can imagine, there are cost advantages to that, but it's also nice that we're able to recycle and reuse material here in-house."
Sales grew by 10 to 15 percent annually until recession hit in 2008, when Vforge pivoted to aerospace and medical jobs. "They've been great markets for us," says Jon, noting that the two industries now account for more than half of the business. The remainder of sales comes from manufacturers of marine equipment and a wide range of other products.
While tooling is done in-house and typically costs $50,000 to $150,000, Vforge has to compete with other mid- and high-volume manufacturing processes. "We have to be price-competitive," says Jon. "Can we make a shape that performs as well as and is lower-cost than the alternatives?"
He continues, "For somebody who's only going to make 30 parts a year, we're not a good choice. The break-even point has been as low as 1,000 pieces per year. We have some neat defense components that are very complex. They only need 1,000 or 2,000 a year, but we actually still bring value in the total picture because the alternative methods to making that shape -- maybe it's machining from solid or using a permanent mold -- would be too time-intensive and too costly."
To finish parts, Vforge offers CNC machining on 3- and 4-axis centers and other post-production processes. Explains Rice: "We've made our mark with this thixocasting process -- it's why we exist -- but all the other types of value-add processes like machining, surface preparation like shotblasting, light assembly work, we offer that all in-house, then we tier the contracting of things like powder coating and anodizing so that we're providing a completely finished part to the customer."
Jon highlights a robotic arm complex that Vforge makes for use in a medical robot in volumes of about 2,500 units a year. "If you had to machine it from a solid piece of aluminum, it would take you an awfully long time," says Jon.
Ken remains active as Vforge's chairman as the company continues to build on its past successes. "A big part of our business success is having anchor customers we've been fortunate to work with for 10, 15, 20 years," says Jon.
"It's certainly been a success story for us to get a brave engineer at the introduction of the technology, but then if we have success and we get one over the fence, then it spreads a little bit like wildfire. We're fortunate to have 15 or sometimes 30 different active part numbers with the same customer."
Based out of a 31,000-square-foot facility west of Denver in Lakewood, Vforge was "starting to pick up steam" from 2017 to 2019, Jon says, but the COVID-19 pandemic flattened the curve in 2020 and 2021.
He sees "much stronger" growth in 2022 and 2023, and the company is adding a fourth thixocasting work cell -- an investment that's "north of $1 million" -- to boost capacity in late 2022.
"We're being challenged right now to keep up with demand across all of the market segments," says Jon.
Challenges: "We have the classic challenges that most manufacturers today have -- labor, materials, and inflationary pressures," says Jon. "We've had some genuine challenges around supply chain with spare parts for equipment. That was pretty disruptive for us over the summer. Now it's trying to handle all of the demand from all of the market segments at the same time, a nice problem to have I suppose, but not when labor's so tight."
Opportunities: Electric vehicles and related infrastructure is at the top of the list. "We've had quite an uptick in interest from new, novel players in electrification, primarily vehicles," says Jon. "Durable good orders, for the moment anyway, seem to be pretty strong."
Defense is another target sector, he adds. Vforge's AS9100 certification "is an entré into those markets. We have some neat case studies that tell the story of the technology."
Needs: "Additional engineering resources, additional manufacturing floor space and capacity," say Jon, estimating that Vforge could use another 20,000 square feet of floor space.
He points to manufacturing automation as a second need: "We're working on implementing more and more automation in our manufacturing for both cost and staffing reasons. . . . It's not so much about headcount reduction as it is about creating additional capacity and achieving the quality that customers are looking for."