What Does It Take To Make A New Skillet?

posted on Friday, April 10th, 2015 in Blog, Company News, Products.

We admit it.  You have to be insanely devoted to an idea if it involves making every USA state into a cast iron skillet.  How hard could that really be, anyway?  What actually goes into making something like that from scratch?  This year is going to be one of the most thrilling for us, because the BIG news is that we’re releasing not just one, but two new state shaped skillets before Christmas!

“Is that ALL?” you may ask…

Though we only have 4 states available right now, with many more to go, we’d like to share with you what we’ve learned so far about the process of making new skillets, as well as whats coming up next!  We are extremely careful to choose which states we invest our time & financial resources into because it’s a pretty intensive process and requires incredible orchestration in order to successfully launch a new product into this world. The costs can vary from product to product, but with the decision of each new product we release, it’s something similar to saying,”It could have been a new car, or boat, or down payment on a house!!!” ~  and that’s no flash in the pan! ( Sorry ~ pun unavoidable here). That’s just the beginning !

“Well, how do you make these pans!?”, you may then ask ?  Lean in closely … the secret sauce in creating a successful new skillet involves the action of several highly skilled people and about 6-8 months per skillet from start to finish.  Below is the break-down of steps for what it takes to develop each state shaped skillet from scratch :

USA_side_Screen Shot

Sign up for the “American” skillet on the New Product Announcments form, (in the Contact Us page).

CONCEPT:

One of the first challenges we face as a young and small company is to decide which states, of the 46 we haven’t made yet, will come next! The most meaningful way to make this difficult and important choice is by listening to YOU, our fantastically loyal followers! We manage your opinions through our public voting page called ” Skillet Community ” to gather insight on which states churn out the most collective interest.  What? You haven’t VOTED on this list yet?  Hop to it !  This is your chance to turn your state love into a skillet reality !!

DESIGN:

The actual look of each state is meticulously crafted for utility, ergonomics, longevity, and with as much detail to the shape of each state as is feasibly possible for cast iron production.  This critical work of aesthetics and function is carried out by our company owner & artist Alisa Toninato, and her beloved professional pattern shop based in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

The way our design ideas are communicated and transformed into a 3-D rendering is something that is part art piece and part technical craft. Between colored pencils and digital software, Alisa and the crew from the Milwaukee pattern shop go back and forth on iteration, after iteration, of the design’s drawings until they get something that looks elegant and works efficiently. This process can take up to 2 months until a final design is settled on!  It’s with great care that the design work is 100% satisfactory, because it will soon become a cast iron product, and that’s no easy thing to change once it’s all done.

Overlay_Color 5th and 6th passThe Big Stretch of 5th Pass

USA_new dimension_ConceptSketch

Alisa’s background as a visual artist and metal sculptor lends a critical eye for composition, product vision & a confident understanding of how a drawing translates into a physical cast iron product. The pattern shop is proficient with 3-D software and instrumental at turning Alisa’s vision into a digital map that can be accurately produced into the master tooling needed for the production of cast iron cookware. The pattern makers understand technical tolerances on specific materials, and they take into consideration the shrink rates of cast iron metal, sand mould-ability and the long term life of a design. We are about 1/3 of the way complete to a new product after the design work is approved !

3-D DRAWINGS: The final drawing, after the design is all worked out, is the master blueprint for what the state pan will look like.  This is a file that is then sent to the pattern shop’s CNC routers to make a master pattern of the design.

PATTERN MAKING: A “pattern” is an essential part in any metal casting process. The patterns are the industrial tooling that sand moulds are made around in metal casting production.  Without a pattern, you cannot make a sand mould, and without a sand mould you will not produce a casting.  So the patterns are pretty important and can take anywhere between 2 weeks and 3 months to complete!

ASC_WI_pattern inserts

They represent the positive master replica of the final product that you desire to create. It’s an old saying in the industry that your castings are only as good as your patterns are, and it’s true !  If you have a flaw or blemish in the pattern, it will translate into your sand mould and therefore cast into your final piece. Great patterns are critical for making great castings.

Our state shaped skillet patterns plates are built specifically for the equipment in the foundry that we use. They are heavy industrial plates made out of aluminum and urethane for ease of the sand moulds to release from some of our most intricate details in the patterns’ design such as the text in the logo and tight, deep corners around some of the state shapes. Patterns are a major asset to any company’s product line, so it’s with great care that the pattern makers and foundry workers take to ensuring the pattern has a long and prosperous life of creating great sand moulds and castings ahead!

PROTOTYPING: Once the pattern is finished, it is shipped to our foundry in Kaukauna, Wisconsin for sampling. The foundry has to “gate” the new pattern, or design a specific way they want the metal to enter into the sand mould to create a successful casting.

After the gating is attached, they run a few sand mould samples on new pattern to see how it turns out for the first time. This is an important step for any fresh new product, because if there are any kinks to work out, we want to do this before committing to a large production run.

The sampling period can sometimes take months to get through, depending on if any casting, gating or pattern design issues come up. There are an estimated 700,000 variables within the casting process that a foundry has to control in order to get a successful final outcome.  Talk about pressure!!

PRODUCTION:  After a handful of samples are run, we get to look at the new product in all it’s cast iron glory for the first time!  We either approve or offer feedback before signing up for a production run on the casting. If all looks good, we can hit the “green light GO!” for the first production run!

NY Production

We love working with our foundry for many, many reasons, but one of the biggest benefits for us, (besides how geographically close we are to them ), is that they are willing to honor our small  order sizes and maintain a high quality output in their manufacturing process. The “micro-manufacturing” approach is critical for us on many levels, not only for market testing and balancing cash flow, but mainly for nailing it on a very high quality product that we take tremendous pride in from start to finish.

SEASONING: This is the last step, (sort of), before shipping a skillet out to the customer !  The seasoning of our cast iron skillets involve quality-checking the castings, de-burring the skillets in a giant rock tumbler, washing & drying each skillet by hand, and then pre-heating, oiling and baking out the skillets until they are black and non-stick.  This is all done right here at the American Skillet Headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin, and we use split hard wood fire and organic flax seed oil to bake a fantastic first seasoning layer into the pan across 7 cycles of heat and oil.

Lot’s of work, right ?!  We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t believe in our products and love the relationships and delicious food stuff that comes out of building a little cookware enterprise.  So stay in touch!  Send us your state-skillet wish lists via our New Product Sign Up form, and if you’ve already been cooking up a storm in your state skillet, don’t be shy to share a photo or two with us at Recipes@AmericanSkilletCompany.com .

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