Linda and I were privileged to tour the Lodge foundry in September 2018. Lodge has two buildings with operating foundries. They are a hop, skip and jump away from each other in the charming small town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee. The new foundry – opened in 2017 and dubbed the 3rd Street foundry – is a 127,000 square foot expansion that increased Lodge’s potential output by 75%. As of this writing, Lodge ships an average of 1 million pounds of iron product each week.
Our tour was of the 3rd Street foundry. It was led by Amanda Suttles, a Lodge Quality Auditor, and Mark Kelly, PR and Advertising Manager. Information came fast and furious during the tour; it was hard to absorb everything. I was mesmerized by everything I saw. I have wanted to tour the foundry – and have tried – for almost 10 years.1 This day was a long time coming for me. I wanted to soak in and savor every sensation, moment, and word. I was (and remain) pretty much awe-struck.
Linda and I were instructed to wear long sleeved shirts and long pants and closed toe shoes for our tour. Upon arrival, we were told to leave our bags with security, though I was permitted to bring along my camera. I was allowed to take photographs of the foundry in production except for in two areas – the proprietary pattern in the DISA-matic, and the proprietary seasoning process.
Our tour was on a Thursday at 1:00 p.m., and employees were hard at work. Linda and I had the opportunity to see the process that Lodge employs from beginning to end. We saw the raw pig iron, the mix used with the iron, and the melt. We watched a pour, and saw the slag removed from the red-hot iron. We also saw the sand mix that Lodge uses to make its molds. Amanda stressed to us that the sand composition is of equal importance to the composition of the iron. In the quality control office, we watched as a technician tested the composition of the sand to ensure that it met Lodge’s standards.
We had the opportunity to see molten iron poured into the sand molds, and watched as a DISA-matic machine created cast iron grill skillets from a proprietary Lodge pattern. Lodge has 5 DISA-matics – 3 in the old foundry and 2 in the 3rd Street foundry. Each DISA-matic machine can make 350-400 molds an hour. Each mold may have multiple pieces. We could see the channel in the mold that permitted the iron to flow into the vacant space in the sand left by the pattern.
After the iron was poured into the sand mold, the sand was removed from the new casting by an automated shaking and then tumbling process. Pans then moved by conveyer belt to an area where they were ground by hand, removing any remnant of the gating. At this point, the pans were a dull silver color – the color of “unseasoned” iron.
Each piece of newly-cast iron is then washed in an automated process which cycles through three cleaning processes. After, each continues on its way to a seasoning tunnel, where Lodge’s proprietary seasoning (soybean oil) is sprayed onto the pan. When the pans emerge after seasoning, they are a beautiful rich black color.
After seasoning, the pans are carried by conveyor belt to an area where Lodge employees personally examine each piece; preparing for packing and shipping if deemed worthy, and scrapping if not. There was a table in the building where castings with flaws from the day had been placed with chalk notations on them. Lodge’s quality control personnel examine these flawed pieces to determine what happened and how to employ a fix.
Lodge has strict quality control measures. At any stage in the manufacturing process, any employee may remove a flawed piece from the production line. Pieces that have small cosmetic blemishes may end up at a Lodge Factory Store; ones with more significant defects are removed to the scrap pile. We saw the huge scrap pile – it was amazing. I wanted to bolt in and grab pieces – that looked perfectly fine to me – and bring them home. It was not to be, however. Iron in the scrap piles are melted down and used in new pourings.
After our tour of the foundry, we had a chance to chat with Mark and Laura Candler, Digital and Social Media Manager for Lodge. On the wall was a photograph of every employee of Lodge, in order of seniority. Lodge clearly values its employees. Mark pointed out more than a handful of employees who have family who work or had worked for Lodge. Lodge presently has 35 employees who have worked with the company for at least 25 years. Since 1951, a total of 143 employees have worked with Lodge for at least 25 years. The pattern makers – “the artists” as termed by Mark – have long tenure. Of the three pattern makers, one has worked with Lodge for 33 years. The other two have worked with Lodge for 26 years.
Lodge’s core values and guiding principals are simple, and we saw them in action on our visit.
- Treat all people with dignity.
- Act with integrity.
- Provide stability and security for our employees and their families.
- Work safely.
- Have fun.
- We are committed and dedicated to the company and to each other.
- We take pride in who we are, what we do, and how we do it.
- We find ways to improve who we are, what we do, and how we do it.
- We are in this together.