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Better Times Ahead

Nov. 2, 2009
The past year has seen few bright spots for diecasters, but the trends toward high-volume production of lightweight components continue to favor the technology.
Buhler’s new Ecoline system is targeted at medium-volume producers of aluminum diecastings. It is meant to balance the group’s offerings, which also include the Evolution series (for low-volume production) and the Carat series (shown here, for high-volume production.)

These are not the best of times to be a diecaster, an industry segment that has been hit notably hard by the decline of the domestic automakers. Domestic plant closings have been numerous, as have been bankruptcy filings.

The singular example of the latter is J.L. French Automotive Castings. However, the future is brighter for Wisconsin firm, which filed a Chapter 11 claim in July. J.L. French and its various lenders agreed on a restructuring plan aimed at financial stabilization. “We met our commitment to complete the reorganization in record time and were able to gain confirmation of our plan in 53 days,” stated chairman, president, and CEO Thomas Musgrave.

By restructuring, J.L. French reduced its secured debt by over $200 million, and Musgrave predicted that the stronger balance sheet would allow the firm “to pursue new business opportunities that were unavailable to us before.”

The remaining diecasters continue expect that automotive design trends will brighten their prospects. Smaller, lighter vehicles almost invariably count on structures and components formed from aluminum and magnesium alloys. While there is continuing interest in semi-solid production techniques (thixomolding, rheocasting), high-pressure diecasting remains the most widely understood, affordable, and available process for high-volume component manufacturing.

There is even one example of a diecaster investing in production equipment. Thresher Industries, a California producer of aluminum and metal-matrix composite (MMC) castings for defense and aerospace markets, among other customer groups, began expanding its high-pressure diecasting capacity with three new work cells. The first cell went into operation in October, anchored by a 350-ton Toshiba machine capable of filling parts up to 15 lb in less than 30 seconds.

Last spring, Thresher acquired two of the Toshiba diecasting machines and a 650-ton “hi-bred” machine with a Wazniac highperformance shot end. The new work cells will include the necessary support equipment, including high-volume melting/holding furnaces. Thresher CEO Tom Flessner said then that the company aimed to produce conventional diecastings and near-net shapes, in aluminum and MMC.

Thresher’s second Toshiba machine is expected to be operational this month. By December, the company intends to start up the 650-ton unit. Flessner called “recycling old machines” a more profitable way to upgrade the business.

Manufacturers of diecasting machinery will not agree that reconditioned equipment is the best choice, and at least one has ventured forth with a new production technology in recent months.

Switzerland-based Buhler Die Casting introduced a new high-pressure machine type this year, the Ecoline. It is designed for medium-volume production, a market position between Buhler’s existing Evolution (small volume) and Carat (high volume) machines. Like those two series, Ecoline is promoted for performance flexibility, ruggedness, and reliability, as well as product quality and complexity.

Buhler’s product management executive Marcello Fabbroni explained that the mid-range of production is where diecasting growth is taking place. “In this market segment, far more than 1,000 new diecasting machines go into service every year,” he reported. “Ecoline is therefore addressed in this environment to foundries that manufacture mainly components of small size and relatively low complexity. Nevertheless, the quality of the cast components must be right. Ecoline satisfies these requirements.”

The high-capacity systems are designed to optimize energy consumption, and to operate easily with minimal operator training. Fast starts and high uptime are assured thanks to proven component design. The hydraulic system also is an optimized design with a minimal number of components to reduce maintenance and training needs. Fabbroni described the Ecoline as a starter model for companies aiming to produce highquality diecastings.

To date, Buhler has introduced the system only to Asian markets. According to Fabbroni, the initial launch there is complete, and the first machines are being manufactured. The Ecoline is available as a standard machine, but can be equipped with additional options. Its locking forces range from 340, 530, and 660 to 840 tons. Buhler claims delivery times for the machines are short, and that fast start-up by local technicians minimizes costs and speeds up commissioning of the casting cells.

Distribution now, manufacturing later
One of the consistent advantages for diecasters is the ability to coordinate their capabilities with designers and manufacturers, to expand their own business potential. Castmaster Group, an Indian diecaster that supplies aluminum castings for an array of industries (automotive, telecommunication, lighting systems) has a new partnership with a producer of X-ray inspection equipment for security and industrial markets.

3DX-Ray and Castmaster India Pvt. Ltd., the developer and supplier of x-ray inspection systems and devices, announced a partnership to distribute 3DX-Ray’s security and industrial products in India, Nepal and Bhutan. They will establish a joint venture in India, Castmaster-3DX, for distribution, support, and service across the region.

“We have spent several months evaluating potential business partners to take our products to India,” stated 3DX-Ray CEO Louise George. “In the long term the joint venture will involve establishing a manufacturing presence in India to supply the Asian market. This will also involve sourcing certain components locally. We are confident that our products will perform well in this territory due to the recent increase in demand we have seen there for security equipment.”

Castmaster executive director Rahul Jain offered that his group’s numerous business relationships in private and public sectors would help the joint venture serve rising demand for security systems in the region, following a number of recent terrorist incidents.