Expert Article

 Magnus Wessén

Magnus Wessén

Owner and CEO, RheoMetal AB and Swefos AB

High Pressure Die Casting Die Casting is Dead, Long Live Die Casting

| Author/ Editor: Magnus Wessén, Per Jansson, Jessada Wannasin / Isabell Page

This may be a very strong sentence, but our point is that High Pressure Die Casting (HPDC) as we know it today is undergoing rapid changes in terms of technology, industrial structure and customer demands. As the changes are so big, we think it is in order to speak about a technology shift that probably will change our industry in a few years.

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High Pressure Die Casting is undergoing rapid changes in terms of technology.
High Pressure Die Casting is undergoing rapid changes in terms of technology.
(Source: Comptech SE/ Patrik Svedberg)

Automotive Designers are Facing larger Challenges than Ever

The weight reductions and the power increase have been in focus for the last 20 years, but the entrance of eMobility, hydrogen and hybrid cars has turned up the requirements. What we have seen so far, there is a need to fulfil the following requirements:

  • Thin wall thicknesses
  • High elongation and strength in as-cast state (without heat treatment)
  • Leak free parts
  • Weldable parts

Professionals with experience in HPDC understand that components and structures with the above requirements will need solutions that are hard to find using standard HPDC, despite the development of casting machines during the last 30 years.

The Processes Needed for Environmentally Friendly Transportation

As an outcome, the design of tomorrows’ cars will probably require more processes besides the ones used in the automotive production of today. The problem for the designers of new types of cars is the lack of data for static mechanical properties, fatigue properties as well as engineering support from suppliers, since most novel processes have not yet reached a production and engineering capacity in line with the requirements.

The requirements from the market will probably result in a situation where a larger number of processes need to be used when producing a vehicle, but also that larger OEM´s must engage on a higher level to secure not only production capacity but also engineering and know-how for these new processes.

The fast Development of Competence and Design Capabilities in China

China has made a shift from low level parts to become a casting nation that produces the most complex and challenging components needed by the automotive industry. This is not very surprising, considering that 50 - 55 % of the tonnage is made in China, but the drivers behind this development are of great interest. While we in Europe must have every project in order before an investment is done, Chinese companies often invest in, and explore, a new technology, and thereafter start the sales process. In this way, they get a sufficient competence level to bring to the developers at an early stage.

The Strategic Sourcing Mistake which is Killing Europe

As cost has been the major driver, the HPDC industry in Europe consists of a few great corporations with large resources. However, the vast majority of the HPDC foundries are small, regional and often without resources to meet the new challenges on the market. The reason is that their customers have pushed the price levels for 30 years, resulting in a situation where long term evolution is simply not possible in their budgets.

The Search for Larger Machines and Complex Processes

There is a clear trend that HPDC parts are becoming larger and more complex. Some reasons are that more and more functionality is to be included in the parts and that a cost- effective design often can be achieved when reducing the number of parts. For the casting industry this means that significantly larger locking forces are needed. But with locking forces exceeding ~4000 tons, new challenges arise, such as:

  • Sourcing problem - there is simply not enough capacity in very large machines
  • Complicated sourcing and high investments
  • Large parts typically need an increased wall thickness to fulfill the flow length requirements, thereby leading to an increased weight

To avoid the above, all possible measures leading to lower locking force requirements should be taken. Some possibilities would be to find casting techniques where lower metal pressures can be used, and to develop solutions where smaller parts can be welded together. If successful, a potential outcome would be that the search for large machines, exceeding ~4000 tons, will be ended, and hence that a lot of such investments could by futile, leaving investors with investments which will be hard to defend in the long run.

The Technology Level of the Die Casting Industry

If everything happens as it says, then it must be a bright future for foundries as there are clear signs of development needs, high volume requirements and strong drivers in terms of environmentally friendly transportation. In our thinking the picture is greatly scattered as illustrated by the following:

The innovation level in HPDC machine development has been small to moderate over the last 20 years. It is mainly the same machine manufacturers who are implementing more data from the process. However, there have not been any revolutionary steps.

On the alloy side the OEM´s have been working with the same alloys all the time as there has been little need for new development. Here there is a big gap that is proven every time there is a discussion with a senior designer within the automotive industry.

The majority of HPDC foundries are small; typically 3-9 casting machines, which are family owned and with profit margins giving that most foundries on the market more or less just have adapted to the OEM demands and streamlined their operation. Consequently, there has not been much room for development in technology.

Our conclusion is that a slow and moderate technology development has now created a gap in technology level, causing difficulties in meeting the requirements for environmentally friendly transportation solutions.

The most Probable Result

If we are right, there is a perfect storm in terms of a technology shift for a great portion of the HPDC market today. The main driver is the search for environmentally friendly ways of living our lives; a trend which continuously is getting stronger and stronger in most parts of the world.

Based on this it is reasonable to assume that the following changes will take place during the coming 10 years:

  • Transportation and logistic cost will increase because of taxation and legislation, thereby promoting regional sourcing and that the new technologies must be available on the three main continents
  • The industrial structure will change, from many small foundries towards fewer and larger company groups
  • The process spectrum will widen, causing a stronger R&D focus in the foundry industry, with close connection to the OEM´s, Universities and research institutes.
  • Old rules are set aside, decisive and agile companies will see great opportunities, and new business models will be developed

Discussion

In our opinion there is a need for a deepened and structured discussion within the foundry industry when it comes to environmental aspects. Sending components around the world, based on decisions related to local labor costs, will certainly not be favored when legislation and regulatorily demands are increasing.

One might argue that it is up to the consumers, and in some cases China, EU and other regional superpowers to steer and control. On the other hand, what happens if we in this industry would start to address these issues already during discussions between casting technology providers and producers, about process development, and know how to sharpen the value proposition to the end customer?

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About the author

 Magnus Wessén

Magnus Wessén

Owner and CEO, RheoMetal AB and Swefos AB