Norican expert interview series

Casting light on aluminium matters


Casting light on aluminium matters

Global consumption of aluminium is predicted to rise to 120 million tonnes by 2025 - 25% of which is being driven by developments in light-weighting and e-mobility within the automotive sector. As such, aluminium is currently central to many quality, profitability and sustainability discussions and decisions affecting Norican foundry customers worldwide.

In this interview, we take a look at one of the industry’s hottest topics. We caught up with the following experts to ask them about all things aluminium:

Heinrich Dropmann, Vice President Automotive and General Industries, Wheelabrator
Carlo Scalmana, Former President, Italpresse Gauss
Per Larsen, Product Portfolio & Innovation Manager, DISA
Peter Reuther, Senior Vice President CPI Thermal, StrikoWestofen

Demand for aluminium castings has never been higher. How is this shift impacting Norican technologies and your customers right now?

Heinrich: In many ways it is business as usual. At Wheelabrator we have always served the aluminium market, particularly through our strong customer base in automotive where the emphasis continues to be on light-weighting and combining multiple structural components into one complex and highly functional part…again for weight reduction but also for simplified assembly.

With these increasingly intricate aluminium parts (which are more susceptible to deformation), where fine detail really matters, the need for precise, tightly controlled blast processes is high. To achieve blast coverage inside complex castings, internal blasting techniques had to evolve quickly.

Our response has been to expand our aluminium portfolio, for example with the LBS mesh belt shot blast range. These medium-duty machines have been developed to maximise blasting efficiency and consistency from all sides and are particularly suited to continuous aluminium processes. A compact machine, developed in conjunction with a customer who makes intricate aluminium castings for automotive filters, was designed to work right within the casting cell, without intermediary storage and transport. Our highly sophisticated robot gripper machines for complex workpieces, like gear housings, deliver internal blasting inside narrow bores and cavities as well as the external blast process.

We have also recently introduced a new range of vibratory finishing machines, as all parts need to be finished.

Developing solutions like these to help customers attain the level of precision and finish required is what we do. The biggest change we are seeing is where we do it. Or rather where our market is growing. China, India, the US and increasingly Europe. Interest in aluminium-specific solutions is no longer dictated by geography.

Carlo: It’s not just demand that has globalised, so has expectation. Even within automotive, manufacturing trends and quality standards have historically varied quite dramatically from country-to-country – especially when it comes to aluminium. That’s changing.

The level of die casting quality expected ‘as standard’ for aluminium is consistently higher across geographies. A battery housing cast in China must be of exactly the same standard as one cast in Germany or North America.

This presents greater opportunity for our customers, who operate at that level of quality and consistency, but it also puts more pressure on them to deliver, and to do so cost-effectively. It’s a call to action we are ideally positioned to help with; not just in terms of technology - our machines and automatic work cells – but also with the install and aftersales services and ongoing technical support we offer. Our global footprint is certainly beneficial but we are now ensuring that our own processes are optimised internally to align with this shift.

What about at DISA, how is the trend towards aluminium affecting green sand foundries you work with?

Per: DISA has had well-developed green sand based solutions for aluminium for some years now. Several lines have been in operation producing various aluminium parts, including automotive.

Today, the combination of productivity, scale, accuracy and great flexibility has strong appeal for mass production sectors like automotive who are increasingly switching to aluminium to reduce vehicle weight. We’re talking to foundries that are looking to change or expand their aluminium processes, but even more interesting: over the last five years, we’ve been approached directly by the car manufacturers themselves.

For many years, they’ve known the exceptional combination of price and quality they get from iron castings produced on DISAMATIC machines. They see strong potential for savings if the same attractive combination of price and quality can be achieved when producing aluminium castings with the DISAMATIC process. The question they are asking us is, can we convert?

With automotive being such a dominant force in aluminium, doesn’t this lead to a degree of conflict between Norican technologies in terms of target customers?

Peter: Actually it’s the opposite – our technologies and services typically complement each other and often help us to present more comprehensive turnkey solutions. This is particularly the case given that most foundries working with aluminium are closely scrutinising every aspect of the casting process for opportunities to make production more efficient, safer and - with a constant view of cost-per-part (especially in automotive) - more economical.

For Wheelabrator, developments like the LBS blast machines that Heinrich mentioned just now add value at the end of the process. For us, it’s all about the beginning.

For instance our melting furnace, StrikoMelter BigStruc, which was actually designed to support the trends toward larger structural parts with complex geometries, aligns perfectly with both DISA’s green sand moulding lines and Italpresse Gauss’ high pressure die casting solutions. With the additional benefit of extremely low levels of metal loss, laser monitored fill-level optimisation and minimal energy consumption, we are able to work hand-in-glove with our Norican colleagues to present seamless solutions – increasingly with high levels of automation to drive home the benefits further still. 

Per: What’s also true is that across the group, we are all very aware of how and where each Norican technology is able to add most value. For instance, at DISA we are not going out to the market saying that green sand solutions are the way forward for all potential aluminium applications. Some castings just don’t make sense for green sand while there are other applications where it is competitive.

For example, for manufacturing something like an open deck engine block, die casting has clear advantages. Why would you consider an alternative? But start talking parts with complicated geometries, hollow sections that require cores, wall thicknesses below 8-10mm and that make high demands on mechanical properties…then green sand becomes an attractive solution. Parts like control arms have all these features.

As I’ve said already, DISA isn’t claiming that it makes sense to produce every aluminium casting in the world in green sand. However, the combination of some parts being naturally well suited to the green sand process and the intensified effort by automotive players to cut costs creates a positive outlook for some aluminium castings to be moved to green sand.

We’ve talked a lot about automotive so far - are you receiving increased interest in aluminium from any other industries?

Per: Part light-weighting is not a trend exclusive to automotive, nor is the desire to achieve ‘cast-in’ functional performance, and that is opening up further new opportunities. So, even though the automotive market is the biggest, we should not forget that many other segments source aluminium castings.

For instance, a number of DISA MATCH foundries in the US have taken advantage of the attractive combination of productivity, flexibility and accuracy in the green sand moulding process to produce aluminium castings for quite diverse market segments, offering short to medium series sizes.

Carlo: While around 90% of our customer-base at Italpresse Gauss is linked to automotive, we also continue to see more industries turning to aluminium – the telecommunications industry for instance. It’s a good example actually as, just like I mentioned earlier in regards to automotive, it is an industry where manufacturing trends and standards are globalising. I can certainly see growth in this market.

Are there potential ‘threats’ to the popularity of aluminium – perhaps from developments around 3D printing?

Carlo: It’s true, 3D printing or Additive Manufacturing is a growing force in automotive. As an additive, rather than subtractive, process that can support metal part production and light-weighting through design, its appeal is clear. But mass production, supporting rapid production of 1000s of parts, is not its strength. Nor, at the moment, is cost.
To echo Per’s comments, it’s about the right process for the right parts – one particular technology will never be the right choice for everything so it is up to us as providers to focus on our strengths and help customers find the right solutions.

Peter: It’s also worth remembering that another strategic advantage of aluminium, and one we here at StrikoWestofen are keenly aware of, is recyclability.
Going back to automotive for a second, aluminium simply outperforms other lightweight materials in that regard. If car manufacturers want to sell electric cars to environmentally conscious customers, then the various composites and plastics don’t really sit well with that. Both in terms of the carbon and waste footprint.

If the market for aluminium continues to grow, what implications do you think this has for the future of foundries?

Peter: As it becomes more mainstream, the use of aluminium also becomes more sophisticated. What we’re already seeing is a diversification in terms of aluminium alloys used. Rather than one or two almost ‘general purpose’ alloys used in the past, today aluminium foundries have to use alloys that are specific to each part produced.That means our customers’ needs have changed. Instead of using one big melting capacity more, smaller melting capacities are required to keep track of the various alloys across the foundry.

The other trend is about sheer speed. Our aluminium foundry customers have been subject to a massive speeding up of product development cycles at the car makers.New foundry lines for new products have to be up and running very quickly. Where customer projects would previously take a couple of years from scoping to commissioning, it can now be as little as half a year.

Carlo: We’ll see new parts, designs etc., especially as e-mobility continues to grow. But I think the biggest changes we’ll see will link back to what I was saying about quality expectations.

Aluminium casting requires accuracy. Expectations around achieving this level of production quality are soaring higher and higher. As a result, the question foundries are starting to ask - and will ask more and more – is how can technology help us achieve this ambition, and help us do it efficiently and more easily? That’s a call we have to answer by looking at things like automation, connected processes and Industry 4.0 solutions.