Die casts are industry’s unsung workhorses, giving functional form to a whole host of manufactured goods — from belt buckles to car engines — that people largely take for granted.
Two minutes after a 3,500-ton die cast is shot full of molten metal, a car engine block emerges. The casting process is repeated thousands of times for a single die.
Eventually, this constant alternation from extreme heat to cooling leaves die casts degraded, from tiny cracks to more serious wear and tear. Repairing die casts requires considerable downtime, reducing yields and a manufacturer’s bottom line.
Enter 3D printing. Additive manufacturing techniques promise to significantly reduce costs by enabling faster and cheaper repairs. 3D printing can also significantly extend the lifespan of dies, saving the industry an estimated $500 million a year, says Daniel Twarog, president of the North American Die Casting Association.
“We have ways of repairing our tooling, but there is nowhere near the speed that this type of technique that we are trying to employ through additive manufacturing provides,” says Twarog.
Using 3D printing to update the age-old process of die casting is just one way the U.S. manufacturing sector is trying to maintain its competitive edge in a fast-changing global environment. It’s also not by accident — as part of an ambitious joint collaboration by the public and private sector to America’s advanced manufacturing base.
The $500,000 in funding to use 3D printing for the “rejuvenation and repurposing” of die casts comes from a federally funded advanced manufacturing initiative known as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). The Obama administration hopes to eventually expand the network to 15 innovation institutes focusing on different clusters of technology.
The first institute — Youngstown, Ohio-based America Makes — is shepherding the development of commercial viable 3D printing techniques, including die-casting and nearly two dozen other research projects. It has drawn in close to 100 other partners, mostly companies.
A second innovation cluster— pulling together 18 companies, five universities and two national labs — was established at North Carolina State University in January to focus on wide-gap semiconductors. Two more recently launched institutes are focused digital manufacturing and design, as well as lightweight and modern metals.
The institutes represent a new focus by the government to nudge promising technologies into commercial deployment. While federal money for science and technology typically funds basic research conducted at universities or governmental labs, the success other industrialized countries have had in aiding technological commercialization — notably Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes – has persuaded the administration to undertake a similar later-stage support initiative.
Congress is currently considering providing $300 million for the network’s expansion. While that’s less than a third of the original $1 billion budget request, approval would demonstrate that “public policy has an important and legitimate role to play in promoting U.S. manufacturing and industry,” says Stephen Ezell, a senior analyst with the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which has been a strong proponent of the program.
The institutes create platforms that encourage collaborative innovation by bringing together a number of otherwise disparate parties who would not otherwise have an opportunity to interact, says Ezell.
One project focused on pre-competitive collaborative research, brings together GE Aviation, Boeing, Lockheed martin, Northop Grumman, additive manufacturer rp+m, and Stratasys, a leading 3D printing company, along with the University of Dayton Research Institute.
“That signifies the opportunity to try to leverage ones another’s investment,” says Rob Gorham, America Makes’ operations director. He says additive manufacturing can extend the life span of die by 25 percent, with repair times typically be reduced to two weeks from 26 weeks.
David Schwam, a Case Western professor overseeing the research on 3D die-casting, has been working for about a year and half with 10 qualified firms around the country to test various additive manufacturing techniques. One participant is Sciaky, which pioneered the use of high-energy electron beams to melt wire and deposit it — layer by layer — to create a shape that doesn’t need much finishing, thus reducing the production costs.
The various experiments will be narrowed to one or two of the most promising techniques to be tested in production in the fall. The firms involved in the testing will naturally be among the first to offer these services commercially and injecting new technologies into the marketplace is the overriding aim of the innovation network.
The U.S. has a long way to go trying to replicate the success of the Fraunhofer Institutes, which are considered key to Germany’s continued manufacturing strength. But innovation experts insist that with time — and funding — an effective innovation ecosystem can develop on American soil.
Top gif: Video courtesy of Sciaky