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An innovative and overall solution for the foundry industry

Dipl-Ing Amine Serghini is a member of the executive board of Hüttenes Albertus (HA), where he is responsible for global sales and marketing. Here he talks about the new research and development centre in Hannover, Germany, and the new HA Center of Competence in Baddeckenstedt. The in-depth talk also focusses on issues of the future such as the development of inorganic binders, additive manufacturing, e-mobility and the worldwide development of HA.

“Our R&D Centre and CoC are two important building blocks in fully implementing our strategy. We want to get even closer to our customers. We not only want to sell products, but also offer the foundry industry an innovative and overall solution, including services,” he says.

HA has added a competence centre with foundry pilot plant to research and development in Hanover. What is the CoC’s specific task?

The CoC facilitates co-operation and allows us to bring solutions to market quickly and effectively. As a producer of foundry chemicals, we are the link between foundries, with their casting requirements, and machine manufacturers, with their technical possibilities. In the past, customers often started by creating a new production line design for their new product in close collaboration with the machine manufacturer. Only once the new plant was ready did the foundry approach HA to find the right chemical products to produce the casting. This was often too late to provide customers with solutions tailored to their processes or castings, which then still had to be put into commission. As a result, valuable time was lost. By working together with the foundry, machine manufacturer and other partners at an early stage in product and process development, we aim to reduce the time required for this phase.

How does this work in practice?

The customer comes to the CoC with his request and meets a consortium of different partners who are working on the topic at the same time and not sequentially as before. If necessary, institutes and universities also team up with the CoC. In our CoC we can cast, shoot cores and build moulds. We can also fully test and optimise new processes and products before they are used. This helps us to develop products for our customers faster and in a more targeted manner until they are ready for the market and to successfully launch them in foundries.

Does this change the relationship between products and services in your strategy?

We still manufacture chemicals, but services are becoming more and more important. Let’s take the automotive industry as an example. When introducing new products, such as a new cylinder head or a new engine block, there is always a bottleneck in the prototype phase. This is because you have to use the engine foundry, which is already operating at full capacity. Our customers can carry out all of their prototyping in our CoC. We have everything we need to produce cores and moulds, and to cast all metals. This means that we are not only able to carry out prototyping from core production to casting, but also to provide other services that can then be outsourced by the foundry. We want to act as an extension of the foundry and offer everything that a foundry, in the midst of series production, would have difficulty implementing internally.

As a chemicals manufacturer, will you continue to focus on foundries in the future?

Yes. We are 100 per cent focused on foundry chemistry with worldwide distribution, and in recent years, we have divested some business areas outside our core foundry business.

You are engaged in research and development in both the fields of inorganic and organic binder systems. What progress are you making?

The new research centre in Hanover will significantly increase the degree of innovation by bringing our researchers together. In the past, R&D was divided into two areas. All organic R&D took place in Düsseldorf, while inorganic binder systems and coatings were developed in Hanover. In the future, we intend to significantly increase the proportion of inorganic products in our production. We also aim to further reduce the volume of organic content in our organic products thereby increasing the volume of inorganic content in return. Our aim is for our researchers in organic and inorganic chemistry to inspire each other.

Can you give an example?

Years ago, we began to introduce more and more inorganic content into organic chemistry, for example with our SIPURID cold box systems. In the future, we intend to continue pursuing this approach. HA’s strategy is to promote the development of environmentally friendly organic binders and not to turn our back on organic products.

What proportion of turnover is accounted for by inorganics?

Currently, inorganics continue to represent about eight per cent of total sales. Inorganics are still in their infancy. But this is the area that is growing fastest. Inorganics will continue to grow to well above 20 to 25 per cent of our product portfolio over the next few years.

When will inorganics for iron casting arrive?

We are very close to a solution that we will present to the market. The first results for series production are very promising. We think that we will be ready to launch a product in 2019.

But you also sell organic binders with inorganic content? 

That’s right. We also integrate inorganic components into the organic molecular structure to improve environmental behaviour and gain other technical advantages.

Do organic binders have a future or will they one day be substituted by inorganic products?

Honestly, that is a difficult question to answer. In principle, organic binders have many advantages. The disadvantage lies in their environmental impact. That is why we are trying, both now and in the future, to make these products as environmentally compatible as possible. We know that we will never achieve zero emissions from organic binders, but we can significantly reduce them. If we manage to do this, organic binders will continue to have their place in the future. In addition, as things stand today, completely replacing organic materials with inorganic materials, not only in Germany, but globally, would be very difficult given the limited supply of raw materials alone. There are simply not enough readily available materials to completely convert to inorganics. We want to maintain the efficiency of the foundry industry, and need to keep costs within reasonable bounds. We can only do so by further developing organic binders to incorporate more inorganics.

Can you be more specific?

Gladly. It is well known that the inorganic binders used by core makers today require heated tools. This results in a negative energy balance when compared to organic cold box processes. If we succeed in making cold box systems more environmentally compatible, and it looks like we will, the cold box process will be used for many years to come. The cold box process definitely has its advantages, especially in the iron casting sector, and has become well established in the automotive industry. This is likely to remain the case in the long term, unless regulations are dramatically tightened.

Which process represents the greatest threat to the cold box process?

Certainly, inorganics are among the processes challenging cold box. When I look at our sales figures, inorganics have gained ground in the aluminium sector compared to cold box. In the iron sector, cold box dominates and is still growing very strongly – every year, purchase quantities have increased. The cold box process is even supplanting other organic core production processes. For example, cold box is increasingly replacing the shell moulding process. The same applies to other processes: even more voluminous cores are more frequently shot rather than pressed using the furan resin method. In this respect, we see a promising future for cold box.

Is e-mobility a relevant topic for you? What impact will it have on you as a foundry supplier?

When we talk about e-mobility, we are talking about purely electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles. Internal combustion engines will continue to be used, including in many Asian countries. We assume that car sales will continue to grow and that the share of internal combustion engines, including hybrid engines, will also increase until 2025. Combustion engines will also change in the future. The casting process is becoming much more complicated due to continuing efforts to reduce CO2 and other pollutants.

An opportunity for casting?

This is both a challenge for foundries and a great opportunity for the cold box process. In the future, more complex, filigree cores will be produced and combined into packages – one of the major strengths of the cold box process. The way in which certain castings are made will change and this will require special binders.

So, cold box will remain an important process for hybrid drives and internal combustion engines…

Absolutely. This is because cast iron will always be an important part of engines – whether it’s a turbocharger, an engine block or a cylinder head. These are all parts that continue to be produced in sand casting. As the castings become more complex, they move from diecasting to sand casting. We see a clear trend here. With higher complexity, castings are sometimes easier to produce using the cold box process. But cold box binders must fulfil certain requirements. Both technically and environmentally, the binders must achieve a significantly better result than today’s systems. We are currently working intensively on both challenges. In one to two years’ time, we will offer market solutions that can also meet these new conditions.

Does e-mobility place special demands on foundry chemistry?

No, for the production of castings, this depends solely on the processes used. But in addition to powertrains, which may become smaller because of e-mobility, there are more and more die cast parts in car bodies and chassis. HA has been serving these areas for some years now, and here, too, we see opportunities for high-performance, i.e. productivity-enhancing and environmentally friendly products.

How is the coating sector developing? When will we see coating-free castings?

In iron casting, efforts have been made for years to eliminate the need for coatings. In some cases, it is already possible – depending on the metallurgy and the geometry of the casting – but in many cases casting is impossible without coatings. In fact, the field of coating is actually set to grow over the next few years.

What are the drivers?

Just take new technologies like 3D printing for core production. 3D printing allows an enormous freedom of geometry, but has the disadvantage that compression is not of the same standard as with a shot core. In order to achieve the required surface quality, a coating material is needed to smooth out the unevenness that occurs during printing. We are in the process of developing coatings specifically designed for 3D printing, because not every coating is suitable for this process. This is a market with a future.

And in iron casting?

Coatings are still necessary in iron and steel casting, even if inorganic material is introduced. We have also succeeded in modifying inorganic systems, which are generally highly sensitive to water, and coatings in such a way that they can be applied without causing damage. We are continuously working to ensure that the binder systems and matching coating materials harmonise in order to prevent certain casting defects in the iron and steel casting sector.

So, coatings are an important R&D topic?

Yes, in fact we have expanded our resources and increased the number of researchers working on coatings. These are scientists who focus exclusively on developing coatings for the fields of inorganic and 3D printing. We are convinced that coatings will continue to represent a growing market in the future.

You have touched on additive production. An engine plant that casts more than one million engines a year needs to produce cores economically. Will 3D printing ever be able to replace core shooters?

Certainly not in the short or medium term. Printing still takes far too long, although the technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. Over the last five years, speeds have increased fourfold. And 3D printing is getting faster all the time. We already know that 3D printing allows maximum geometrical freedom. In future, cores that cannot be shot due to their geometry will be produced using additive manufacturing technologies, whereas simpler cores will still be shot at low cost. We fully expect both methods to be used in combination. Core-making shops will not only have 3D printers or core shooters – they will use both.

Are these developments being driven by industry-led demands?

Certainly. In terms of 3D printing, we have also built up resources for the development of new core printing additives. After all, new processes require new products. We also recognise the pressure to innovate from the customer side. Even today, it is possible to print complete core packages with 20 cores, whereby it’s not always possible to clearly distinguish between cores and moulds. Our customers are already asking us how to advance this new technology. Industry wants to use the technology, but still sees certain limitations.

And what exactly is HA’s role in all of this?

In our view, our task is to develop the right products for the whole range of metals in order to improve the field of core printing. It is not only the printing, it is also about the thermal stability of printed cores during the complete casting process, all the way through to de-coring. It doesn't help if I have a beautifully printed core, but I can’t get it out of the casting. After pouring even the most delicate component, the sand has to be removed from the tightest corner. And this is one of the challenges we are trying to solve.

Do you work closely with machine manufacturers and foundries in additive manufacturing?

We collaborate with universities and other institutes, as well as with foundries and machine manufacturers. Producers of 3D printers, such as Voxeljet and ExOne, are among our customers. We supply them with the appropriate products and we also work together on developing solutions for the foundry industry.

Hüttenes-Albertus is a global company. Where is the greatest demand?

HA has a very strong position in Europe and is also very well established in the United States. We certainly see great potential for growth in Asia. China is our fastest growing market, delivering double-digit growth rates every year. We also have a good footprint in India, Turkey and Russia.

What is driving demand in China?

The automotive industry, together with mechanical engineering, are the key drivers of growth in the Chinese foundry industry. When we talk about hydraulic casting, we have five to ten new customers in China every year. Hydraulic casting is generally in steady decline in Europe, except in certain, special cases. The business of simple castings has all moved to China, and we are seeing more and more foundries built there to satisfy this demand.

Do inorganic processes play a role in China?

Inorganic processes play an increasingly important role in China. Next year, we will sell more inorganic products in China than in Europe. China is experiencing an enormous rate of growth. It doesn’t take years and years to introduce new regulations in China – they are implemented quickly, within one year. Some of our customers have already been forced to switch to inorganic processes to comply with new environmental standards. In the field of aluminium casting for the automotive industry, for instance, more and more new production lines are being built – and they are all geared towards inorganic processes in order to satisfy more stringent environmental requirements. However, the cold box process is also gaining ground in China and is increasingly replacing the shell moulding process that has so far dominated there.

Do you also manufacture foundry chemical products for local markets? Like particularly high-quality offers designed for the German market or the automotive industry, and then simpler products for the Asian market?

In the past, western European foundries did require higher performance products than Asian foundries. And I deliberately say ‘performance’ rather than ‘quality’, because the quality of all our products has to be just right. Nowadays, we have customers in China who have higher requirements and demand even higher performing products than our European customers, although there are still customers who only require lower performance products. Our strategy is to always offer our customers exactly the solution that meets their needs and gives them added value, for example in terms of increased efficiency. For that reason, we do not manufacture the same products everywhere. We have market-specific products that we only manufacture in China, for example, for our customers there.

How will you generate growth in the future? Organically, or via strategic acquisitions?

HA’s growth over the last few years has been achieved not only organically, but also inorganically, via strategic mergers and acquisitions. HA, as a family-owned company, has had a large number of joint ventures with other family-owned companies worldwide. Our philosophy has always been to ultimately secure majority ownership of these international joint ventures. And we have succeeded in doing so. In the last decade, for example, we have achieved majority ownership of joint ventures in Turkey, Spain, Korea and Italy. The biggest challenge, however, was to take control of the remaining 50 per cent of our joint venture in the United States, which we managed to do in May 2016. There will certainly be more M&A projects in the future. But a major part of our growth will also be achieved organically.

With new products?

Through the introduction of new processes and new high-performance products for specific markets. As I mentioned previously, we always focus on the needs of our customers and develop solutions to help them improve processes and increase productivity. We expect significant growth, particularly in the Chinese market, but also in the southeast Asian region, which is also a region with a promising future for us.

Next year is a GIFA year. Can we expect anything new from HA at GIFA 2019?

Nothing revolutionary, but an evolution with promising and innovative solutions. We want to offer not only individual products, but above all fully integrated solutions for the foundry industry. We will present at least two new solutions that will have a positive and lasting impact on the foundry industry.

Last question: Where is HA today, and where will the company be ten years from now?

HA is already one of the leading foundry chemical companies in the European market. We also have a very strong market position in North America. In Asia, we still see enormous growth potential in a number of foundry markets. In some markets, the two letters ‘HA’ are not always as well-known as we would like them to be. This will certainly have changed ten years from now.

But one thing is certain – we are and will remain a family-owned company. Our owners will always stand firmly behind the business. Our credo – HA family – is far more than just a slogan. Our employees and partners in the global HA world live and experience this every day. It is the foundation of their motivation, and they work passionately every day to help shape the future and growth of our company.

Source: Gerd Krause, Mediakonzept, Düsseldorf