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A MPG Casting Technologies executive noted that the LIFT research programs are based on ldquocurrentproduction automotive partsrdquo which has immediate benefits for current production programs

Real-Time Progress Toward Lightweight Iron Castings

Sept. 9, 2016
The story of how vehicles are becoming lighter is still in development, but it’s already rewarding MPG Casting Technologies. Trials nearing completion Three-stage process Lower material coasts … reduced energy requirements

Thanks to some relentless marketing work in the past year or so, it may seem to many car and truck buyers that the work of lightening up their next vehicle is complete — or is simply a matter of converting product designs from steel to aluminum. But even that well-known breakthrough design was decades in development, and the truth about lightweighting vehicles is more detailed and evolving than it is possible to convey in a 30-second commercial. The story of how vehicles become lighter is still in progress.

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the lightweighting story are being pursued under the banner of the Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow program (LIFT), a “manufacturing innovation institute” established in 2014 and operated by the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute, with oversight by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research. They are intriguing because they involve automotive and aerospace suppliers as manufacturing research partners — meaning the R&D is being conducted in real time with proven technologies and market-ready product designs.

The first of the six research programs LIFT announced to-date involves MPG Casting Technologies’ (formerly Grede Foundries) St. Cloud, MN, foundry, demonstrating materials and methods for thin-wall ductile iron casting in critical automotive parts. According to Jay Solomond, MPG Casting’s vice president of Engineering & Technology, trials underway since midyear (and due to run through Q3 2016) have resulted in significant weight and thickness reductions for the specific part.

“It’s a multi-phase process,” he explained. “Step one was pouring multiple castings to trial weight and thickness reductions to help ‘bookend’ the process. Step two was taking a part (differential case) currently in production and optimizing the design and chemistry. Step three will be to produce and validate the design.”

The executive also noted the work has involved not only the St. Cloud foundry, but also the MPG foundry in Brewton, AL. “St. Cloud was heavily involved in the early stages of the project for material characterization (working closely with Michigan Technological University.) They poured plates ranging from 1 mm to 5 mm, to establish a baseline,” he reported. Then, the Brewton plant joined the effort, “taking current production parts and optimizing them for 40% mass and 50% thickness reduction through developments in manufacturing and high-strength chemistry.

“Both phases of the process were heavily reliant on the development of chemistry, which required working closely with foundry engineers and university professors, students, and industry professionals involved with LIFT,” Solomond explained.

There are real-time advantages to the MPG foundries. “We’re using existing production lines and advanced molding techniques … and pushing them to new heights,” he said. One benefit resulting from the research studies have been lower material coasts, because reduced-weight castings require less iron to produce. “Less material results in a lighter product, and a lighter product results in less weight being moved through the production process resulting in less energy required,” according to the executive.

Solomond observed that the R&D projects may be viewed as process improvements without the risk of investment capital or the time and effort of installing new equipment, but the results can be evaluated in real time too, because the studies are based on “current-production automotive parts.”

He noted a more general, and still real-time, improvement that MPG Casting is deriving from its LIFT participation: the drive to lighten ductile iron castings has fostered a more dynamic approach to process and product improvement.

“Lightweighting is a common focus for everyone,” he said. “This project has improved our ability to cast thin wall products, as well as empowered our design team to work with our customers in the early stage of product development to meet their product needs for lightweight and performance.”

And, noting that via the LIFT partnership MPG is demonstrating that “lightweight iron castings are possible,” he anticipated that the foundry group would consider new research and development project opportunities with LIFT.

About the Author

Robert Brooks | Content Director

Robert Brooks has been a business-to-business reporter, writer, editor, and columnist for more than 20 years, specializing in the primary metal and basic manufacturing industries. His work has covered a wide range of topics, including process technology, resource development, material selection, product design, workforce development, and industrial market strategies, among others. Currently, he specializes in subjects related to metal component and product design, development, and manufacturing — including castings, forgings, machined parts, and fabrications.

Brooks is a graduate of Kenyon College (B.A. English, Political Science) and Emory University (M.A. English.)