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Foundry is proud of Olympic torch role

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MARYSVILLE, Wash. ? When the Olympic torch is carried through the streets of Seattle on Wednesday, the 50 people who work at the SeaCast Inc. foundry will be there to see their handiwork ? the torch itself ? in the limelight.

"Shoot, I'm going to be there," said Bert Robins, who owns the company with his brother, Michael.

Seattle is as far north as relay runners will carry the torch in Washington state on its northbound route up the West Coast. From Seattle, it will be flown to Alaska and then back to Spokane on Thursday. From Spokane, it will be carried through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado on its way to Salt Lake City Feb. 8.

For three months last year, the foundry ran 24 hours a day to make 16,500 aluminum torch midsections. Those castings were then topped with a glass crown and given a plastic tail.

The result: this year's version of the historic Olympic icon, made for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

It's a high-profile change of pace for SeaCast, which makes obscure metal parts for the Boeing 747 and the lumber and mining industries.

"This is by far one of the most visible projects we've ever done," said computer systems manager Paco Joyce.

"Most of our parts are shipped and never heard about again," agreed plant manager Steve Cromer.

The foundry was contacted in July by the Coleman Co. of Wichita, Kan., the cooler and camping company, about making the torches' metal midsections. SeaCast was one of three foundries that submitted prototypes.

Making the 18-inch-long tubes was not easy.

The foundry used a time-consuming process called investment casting or the "lost wax" process ? a metalworking process that for thousands of years has allowed a detailed model to be worked into wax first, and then translated into metal.

The process has been updated at SeaCast. It begins with a three-dimensional computer drawing of a torch that is carved into two metal blocks ? together comprising half the torch ? by a computer-guided machine.

The blocks are strapped together, with their inside cavities forming the torch, and orange wax is injected between them. The hard-wax torches are then removed from the metal molds and dipped into vats of liquid ceramic and silica sand seven times, until a hard shell forms around the wax.

Once dry, the molds are put into ovens at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, fusing the sand and ceramic.

"It becomes almost like glass," Joyce said.

Next they are fired in a kiln, where the wax flows out ? the "lost wax" part of the process.

Then the void is filled with liquid aluminum and allowed to harden.

Finally, the ceramic mold is broken off to reveal a torch with all the exacting detail. Those with the slightest imperfections are cast aside.

As the weeks passed and workers rushed to get the torches finished in time for the nationwide torch relay, there were some anxious moments at SeaCast.

"We were worried about delaying the Olympics," Joyce said with a smile.