Aluminium and innovation: the new essential alloy

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Foundries prepare for an aluminium future

The rapidly growing global market for complex aluminium castings requires aluminium-specific equipment that works together in harmony – from melting, holding, dosing and casting right through to finishing. And that’s the Norican speciality.

Aluminium used to be the world’s most precious substance. Today, with global consumption predicted to rise to 120 million tonnes by 2025, it’s second only to steel as the most popular metal. That demand is changing the face of the world’s foundries.

Aluminium production grew by 6% globally in 2017 and it’s the automotive industry that’s the main impetus behind the boom, along with sectors like aerospace, mechanical engineering and packaging. 

As environmental legislation tightens, the pressure is increasing to reduce automotive fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. New greener vehicles must be lighter, so choosing featherweight aluminium instead of heavier steel  can make a lot of sense for some components, particularly large structural parts. 

That’s why, by 2022, the average car will contain almost 100 extra kilos of aluminium in replacement of heavier components. Globally, the use of aluminium in automobiles will double from around 12% to 25% of consumption – 30 million tonnes – by 2025. 

A growing appetite for high quality aluminium

Foundries are seeing aluminium and other light metals take a more prominent part in their national casting markets. China, the world’s largest aluminium producer and consumer, saw primary production grow by 10% in 2017 alone.

In the USA, the aluminum casting market size was valued at $49.47 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow by 7.8% annually through to 2025. As the US imports the majority of its aluminium, 2018’s new import tariffs may well hurt those figures, but the outlook overall remains very positive.

India, the world’s third-biggest casting producer and now its fastest-growing large economy, is also pivoting towards aluminium. The same story applies in Europe, with aluminium increasingly used in premium automotive manufacture as well as in other sectors like construction.

This rapid shift from steel to aluminium signals a huge opportunity for some foundries. But simply sending out the sales team isn’t enough. But it’s not an easy business to get into.

Complex aluminium automotive structural parts are difficult to both cast accurately and to finish efficiently and consistently. That means die casting is increasingly about quality rather than quantity, demanding sophisticated and specialised equipment. Foundries must invest and innovate to raise their game.

Investing in aluminium innovation

Shrewd die-casting foundries are already benefitting from the aluminium boom. In China, the automotive market has grown rapidly over the last twenty years and the die-casting market has expanded alongside it, doubling in size over the last decade.

Companies that invested early to cater for this expansion are prospering, like DGS China. Specialising in aluminium and magnesium high-pressure die casting, the Nansha, Guangzhou-based company has seen its takings soar from RMB 40 million to over RMB 320 million since 2012. Constant plant upgrades help it profitably produce the complex and valuable structural components its auto clients specify.

Reducing costs and increasing productivity were behind substantial aluminium-related upgrades at South Korea’s Neoflam and Ford of Germany. The latter upgraded its Westomat furnaces with the latest digital controllers, improving dosing accuracy, energy consumption and system availability.

Suppliers must also play their part in supporting foundry expansion into aluminium. Significant R&D resource is needed to develop products and service solutions tailored to aluminium’s material properties – and suit the often smaller foundries that work with it. 

At Norican, the new Wheelabrator LBS 1000 shotblasting machine range is a great example, fresh out of Wheelabrator’s Centre for Product Innovation in Metelen, Germany this July.

This new, lighter LBS mesh belt machine is particularly suitable for aluminium part finishing, with the mesh belt concept allowing efficient part blasting from all sides within a compact space and without tumbling. The new model’s pitless and compact design allows faster installation with a more ergonomic loading height. By fitting into tight layouts and moving more easily between cells, it allows more flexible integration with existing processes.

 

Integrated aluminium casting cells for process optimisation

Vital as they are, surface finishing and cleaning are only part of the answer for aluminium component production. Die casting machines, melting and dosing furnaces – all play their part and must work together seamlessly. 

Norican Group brands DISA, Italpresse Gauss, StrikoWestofen and Wheelabrator are now collaborating closely to deliver integrated solutions for melting, holding, dosing, casting and finishing of aluminum parts. 

The Italpresse Gauss automated cells can integrate the die cast machines and all peripheral devices, from a dosing furnace to automatic deburring. They allow customization to fit each client’s individual process, from sophisticated automotive applications to the most common objects like lighting components or kitchen tools.

Working closely with the customer, Italpresse Gauss delivers turnkey solutions for a part or the entire cell and ensures efficient implementation. This in-house approach applies leading edge 3D simulation, supporting feasibility analysis for project evaluation and carefully analysing the process and cell functions to optimise automation and cycle times. In production, customised HMe control software, data storage and analysis gives central management and total flexibility for further improvement.

The building blocks of high pressure casting

To build the most productive and competitive processes, businesses must consider investing in performance-enhancing equipment. Producing consistent castings with excellent mechanical characteristics and low porosity demands high pressure die casting machines with rock-solid rigidity and stability. Auto makers want the highest quality metal to give structural strength plus easy weldability and riveting.

In fact, all aspects of the casting process need to be under review as never before. Energy efficiency, cost reduction per part, sustainability and a clean, safe working environment are growing in importance. A good example is StrikoWestofen’s Westomat dosing furnace and revolutionary new Schnorkle closed transport system

The Westomat requires a fraction of the energy consumed by automatic ladle systems using holding furnaces and has a service life up to 25 years. The Schnorkle makes accidental overflow or unsafe tilting a thing of the past when transferring molten aluminium to the dosing furnace with minimal contact to the atmosphere.

StrikoWestofen’s new BigStruc melter is another case in point, developed with emerging aluminium needs in mind, it can melt extremely large, thin walled returns of up to 2.5 m². It is exceeding foundry expectations with the very high metal yields achieved and very low energy consumption – perfect for today’s more complex automotive structural castings.

Meanwhile, developments such as Italpresse Gauss’ ECO-FIT system also support energy-saving ambitions. ECO-FIT Mode and ECO-FIT Plus regulate die casting machines’ hydraulic pumps to lower energy consumption, reduce hydraulic fluid temperatures and lower noise levels. This helps to save energy, reduce costs and create a cleaner working environment.

 

Investing in aluminium innovation

Wheelabrator’s compact new SPH-2-3/8 spinner hanger blast machine was developed specifically for aluminium applications and excels at descaling, deburring/deflashing and cleaning aluminium parts.

Based on an existing multi-purpose model, it now has considerably increased blast power and abrasive throughput with a lighter, slimmer design that again suits compact aluminium production environments perfectly.

Wheelabrator’s DS and DV manipulator shot blast systems were likewise designed specifically for the high-end production of complex light metal castings.

With advanced integration and automation capabilities, their high-performance manipulator shot blast systems can blast clean, descale and shot peen components of different shapes and sizes without the need for re-tooling.

Sand casting for flexible aluminium production

Green-sand moulding is another high-performing option for aluminium casting within Norican’s portfolio. Offering much lower tooling costs and far quicker tool changes, it can have significant advantages over die casting in certain aluminium applications. It can also deliver incredibly fast production speeds of 300 or more castings per hour.

For safety-critical components with demanding mechanical requirements, low pressure sand casting is the most suitable solution. A pressurised furnace pumps molten metal into the mould, producing laminar flow that minimises the metal’s exposure to air. This reduces aluminium oxide formation, helping give the part excellent mechanical properties.

Easy and efficient cored casting production is another attraction of the green sand process. Well-proven and economic cold box sand core technology makes it simple to produce complex, hollow section and thin walled aluminium components.

That gives designers more freedom to create intricate geometries with closed cross sections and precise wall thicknesses, perfect for components like automotive suspension control arms that have rigorous mechanical and tolerance requirements.

As well as being lighter, hollow section parts also consume less raw aluminium. With their unmatched accuracy, machines such as the DISAMATIC D3 and, for bigger castings, the DISAMATIC 240 and 250 are perfect for this kind of demanding production.

Where mechanical properties are less critical, gravity pouring can be the perfect aluminium casting solution. With a lower investment, machine ranges like the DISA MATCH and DISAMATIC C3 can rapidly produce large numbers of high quality sand moulds. 

The DISA MATCH employs patented DISA matchplate technology with the DISAMATIC Blow/Squeeze mechanism that combines speed and flexibility with high precision – the perfect answer for small to medium sized foundries manufacturing parts like flanges, bearing brackets and engine mounts. 

For example, the DISA MATCH 20/24 can produce up to 180 uncored moulds per hour with a maximum machine related mismatch of less than 0.2mm. A Quick Matchplate Changer (QMC) gives rapid pattern changes (under two minutes) to make short-run production even more efficient.

Together, DISA and its Norican Group partners can supply everything from a single moulding machine to a complete foundry. Whether the run size is 50 or 50,000 pieces, or the casting’s mechanical properties are less critical or more demanding, DISA technology opens up new options for efficient aluminum casting production.

Combined creativity for profitable aluminium casting

As auto makers adopt more compact designs and reduce the number of steps in vehicle production, aluminium moulding, die casting and finishing will only become more challenging.

Cast structural parts are becoming larger, flatter and more complex, with intricate shapes and thin walls. They must meet higher mechanical performance requirements, combining great strength and rigidity with low thickness.

Innovation is the only way to stay ahead in this competitive world – and light alloy casting is certainly competitive. Innovation is a trait all Norican brands share and Norican Group is well positioned to support foundries as they pivot towards these new business prospects.

With all our brands working in partnership, we’re supercharging our learnings and development to produce exciting new seamlessly integrated technology. 

As well as being a global source of integrated best-of-breed aluminium casting solutions, the Norican Group network is boosting its service levels in countries like China, which means improved local support response and parts supply.

Engineers will be close at hand to support customers and share aluminium casting know-how, helping them to get the best out of their equipment and improve their manufacturing processes. 

At Norican Group, our aim is to solve current and future challenges by shaping industry. This unrelenting approach to innovation and quality service will ultimately help customers to make the most of the aluminium opportunity.