Shop patterns success one piece at a time

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Saturday, April 19, 2008
— Piece by piece, part by part, two guys in a dusty Janesville shop are doing their part to keep the nation’s manufacturing wheels spinning.

Lanny MacDonald of Janesville and Mike Kraeplin of Beloit run LL Patterns in a shop on East Delavan Drive. The company builds patterns—most of wood, some of Styrofoam—that eventually are used to make castings for metal parts.

A pattern is a full-scale model of the final casting used to make molds into which molten metal can be poured.

In an era of advanced computer programs and robotic manufacturing, MacDonald and Kraeplin are throwbacks to a time when precision pieces were cut by hand and assembled into a larger pattern.

MacDonald and Kraeplin work from engineers’ drawings or computer designs and must meet exacting tolerances.

“The work may be very similar, but no two projects are ever the same,” MacDonald said.

During a recent visit, the two were working on a pattern for a 34-foot diameter gear that eventually will be used at a coal-fired power plant. The gear will turn a huge cylinder filled with steel shot that pulverizes the coal and shoots it into a burner, Kraeplin said.

The two were making the pattern in 28 sections.

“This job will take us two months for two guys,” MacDonald said.

LL Patterns specializes in large-diameter jobs. Most of its customers are in the Milwaukee area.

Foundries are difficult clients to land, Kraeplin said. But if a patternmaker can win an initial job, others follow as trust and responsibilities grow.

MacDonald and Kraeplin have been in the trade since the 1970s.

“There aren’t too many of us patternmakers left,” Kraeplin said. “The foundries couldn’t afford it, so everything went to China.

“I’ve heard it said that companies can order five patterns from China, hope they get one that works, and it’s still cheaper.”

With a lifetime of experience in the trade, MacDonald and Kraeplin know the U.S. market. Still, they’ve done their share of knocking on doors to keep the business running.

Big orders can mean few weekends off. Slow times can mean making furniture or doing kitchen projects.

“We’ll do anything to try to fill the downtime,” Kraeplin said. “It doesn’t much matter.

“Wood is wood.”

Last updated: 8:56 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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