Cast Iron Creativity
One of Alabama’s oldest and largest privately held companies, American Cast Iron Pipe Co., also has one of the longest records of patented innovations. Its ductile iron pipe is geared to refit the nation’s aging water infrastructure. And “something really amazing” is still cooking in the company laboratory.
American Technical Director David Drake shows off one of his firm’s newest innoations — a pipe joint designed to withstand earthquakes and keep water flowing.
Call it apropos that Birmingham-based American Cast Iron Pipe Co. unveiled its latest product innovation — the American Earthquake Joint System — at a major trade show in California.
The system centers on a joint that connects to American ductile iron pipe and valves and at fire hydrant bases to allow the pipeline greater vertical and horizontal movement during seismic events. That added flexibility improves the odds of water pipes and fire hydrants withstanding tremors, which could prove of vital importance if or when the Big One hits quake-jittery California — or anywhere else.
“One of the first things you can have with an earthquake is fire,” says Derek Scott, marketing and technical manager with the valve and hydrant division of American Cast Iron Pipe Co. “If you don’t have water lines and fire protection, your problems can increase exponentially.”
A waterworks trade journal named American’s earthquake joint as one of the 10 most innovative new products featured last June at the American Water Works Association’s annual conference. Interest in the joint system drew significantly more visitors to the American show booth than usual.
“Most of the interest so far has been with customers in the West, but the area of seismic events is changing, and it’s more widespread than you might think,” Scott says. “You wouldn’t think of Kansas City or northern Arkansas as being in earthquake-prone areas, but they are.”
Product innovation has been part of American culture since it was founded in 1905 and is a major reason the company is now one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of ductile iron pipe, fittings, valves and fire hydrants for the waterworks and fire protection industries.
American also manufactures steel pipe up to 24 inches in diameter for the oil and natural gas industries. It recently completed work on a $70 million expansion at its Birmingham headquarters that added 150,000 square feet of steel pipe processing capacity, doubling its annual steel pipe capacity to 700,000 net tons.
The company uses a different technique to manufacture steel pipe up to 144 inches in diameter for water-related projects. American has about 2,600 employees, including 1,600 at its Birmingham headquarters facility.
Product innovations have been numerous and include a cement lining American developed for iron pipe in 1922 that remains an industry standard; various pipe joints and gaskets that made the pipe installation process faster and easier; a nozzle cap that prevents unauthorized access to fire hydrants; and, more recently, a zinc coating to ductile iron pipe for added protection in corrosive environments.
American played a key role in the development of ductile iron pipe, which replaced its cast iron predecessor, and is now a staple in municipal water systems throughout the United States. Adding magnesium to the molten iron mix transforms the shape of the graphite in the mixture, making the resulting pipe stronger than its cast iron relatives, more resistant to natural enemies like corrosion and internal water pressure and better able to withstand an accidental hit from a backhoe, for example.
The company’s penchant for innovation has been driven from the get-go by management’s understanding that the customer comes first. The idea for the earthquake joint system, for example, came from discussions between American sales personnel and a small group of municipalities in California.
Using input from those discussions, American used the latest technologies and processes to come up with the earthquake joint system in just six months. The company used computer engineering and design programs to create a virtual version of the earthquake joint, and then used 3D printing to make a working model.
“We can hold the 3D printed models in our hands and test them for things like fit, shape and manufacturability instead of having to go out and spend the time and money to have someone make a prototype for us,” says David Drake, American’s technical director.
“We can do that here in the laboratory in a day and save a lot of time and money in the process. So when we finally do go build a prototype, the probability for success is a lot higher, and that saves time and money, too.”
Looking at the big picture now and in the days ahead, the water infrastructure in the United States — which consists mostly of iron pipe — is aging and increasingly in need of repair. American sees that as opportunity.
“Ductile iron pipe is made almost exclusively from recycled materials, so it’s an environmentally friendly product,” says Maury Gaston, marketing services manager for American’s ductile iron pipe division. “Iron pipe is a major part of our aging water infrastructure because it has lasted so long because it works so well.
“There aren’t many products out there that you can install and still have it operating problem-free 50, 70 or 100 years later. We strongly believe that replacing aging water mains with ductile iron pipe is in the nation’s best interests. Cast iron mains served the country admirably, and ductile iron pipe is even better than cast iron.”
Moving forward, what innovations might be next for this 110-year-old company?
Says Drake: “I don’t know what the next great technology is going to be that changes the waterworks industry, but I get the feeling it’s right around the corner. And it’s going to be something really amazing. I don’t care to speculate what it might be, but I know it’s coming. It’s out there.”
As Business Alabama neared deadline for this issue, American had just hired a new innovation manager. According to Vice President of Sales Mike O’Brien: “We’re focused on meeting a need for our customers’ pain points — meeting a need that no one else has met — and evolving our products to meet 21st century demands. Our innovation manager will help us do this by focusing our efforts on finding new ways to serve our customers in the water and wastewater industries. In a word, innovate.”
Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.