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Future-proofing the cast metals industry

With the availability of skilled people being the biggest challenge for the UK foundry sector, (as highlighted in the recent casting industry census*) the opportunity to come together to discuss the latest developments and opportunities is fundamental. Thus, the resurrection of a UK foundry conference was greeted with high level support from both foundries and suppliers.

Speaking at the opening of CASTcon (27th and 28th March), Pam Murrell, CEO of the Cast Metals Federation (CMF) told delegates: “The industry is growing globally, at the Cast Metals Federation, we have just carried out an industry survey that has shown an eleven per cent recovery in the UK industry, which is very encouraging. The question is perhaps, then, just how much of the industry will be here in the UK – and let’s make sure it is the high value, high profit stuff. And that brings me to the next key finding from the survey which was that a lack of skills, and shortages in technical knowhow, is a particular challenge for the industry at this time!

“With this in mind it is particularly pleasing to see so many young people, apprentices and students in attendance.”

Organised by the Foundry Equipment & Supplies Association (FESA) and CMF, with financial support for apprentice attendance from the Tor Lodge and Applecross Trust, CASTcon attracted 185 delegates. The event included evening presentations and a panel debate followed by a full day of technical and business lectures, tours of the casting-specific facilities at the venue – Cranfield University – and a table top exhibition with 27 exhibiting companies taking part.

Speaking about the global foundry industry, WFO general secretary Andrew Turner said: “Global casting output is increasing, currently standing at 106mt up from 103mt. Whilst China accounts for 50 per cent of global output, only ten per cent of this is for export. The UK now produces less than 650,000t but specialises in high added value and high growth areas. Europe as a whole is the second largest producer of castings in the world but suffers from very high energy costs, with only 15 per cent of castings produced in Europe for direct export.”

He emphasised the specific relationships the sector has with its customers and how collaborative working is pushing technology to “drive” development such as weight reduction possibilities.


Additive – aspiring to be casting

Practical experience with new castings was the focus of a presentation given by Will Jeffs of Castings Technology International (Cti), when he told delegates of the organisation’s “different approach” to prototyping. He gave several examples of castings developed at Cti in case study form. He said: “Prototyping should not just be linked to a single technology – a variety of techniques should be applied to extend the ‘window of possibilities’. It is possible to reduce cost and use additive layer manufacturing (ALM) where it is most appropriate – this is our philosophy. I would recommend companies to take advantage of ALM – we are even looking at casting in inserts. Don’t ignore it, better to know thine enemy!”

Taking part in the AM versus casting debate, Keith Denholm of Grainger & Worrall spoke about how sand printing is a rapid process at G&W. “We can undertake cylinder head printing (toolless) in less than a week, with CNC cut plastic tooling it takes around four weeks,” he said.

“The best application is that it complements what you have. Hybrid is an option. Is it cost-effective? That is subjective but it does open the designer’s mind to the art of the possible. If you can get your head around what it can do, it will make more use of itself.

“At least two thirds of Formula 1 engines have printed cores, we do them. I am not sure of the other third but they may be the same. Whilst it sits well in our business, the question does remain – how do you industrialise and upscale it? We need UK support, a lot of this technology eminates from Germany. It is a perfectly sensible thing to integrate into existing production but it won’t replace traditional casting any time soon.”

Dr Rob Scudamore of The Welding Institute (TWI), concurred. Speaking specifically about metal additive manufacturing he told delegates: “In terms of size and scale – additive is nowhere near casting but it is a tool for you to use. I would say that casting is what additive wants to be when it grows up.”

He outlined the advantages of additive manufacturing as:

  • Greater design freedom.
  • Novel geometries –assemblies.
  • Decreased costs – no tooling.
  • Reduce lead time – CAD to part.
  • Reduced waste – not compared to casting but to subtractive techniques (recycling powder).
  • Personalisation/customisation.

The debate continued in the bar for some hours after the presentations, with delegates having the opportunity to question those who have experience of integrating the technology into their working processes.


A real energy in the industry

Prof Sir Peter Gregson officially opened the second day, telling attendees: “This conference recognises the responsibility universities have of bringing people together to share. Cranfield is proud of the deep and meaningful way we work with industry. I think it is safe to say the debate between AM versus castings was an ‘honourable draw’ last night. To be competitive as a nation we need to work continuously together – the spirit of co-operation is vital. CASTcon itself will strengthen relationships and raise ambition for the future.”

His colleague, Prof Rajkumar Roy of Cranfield University said: “There is a real energy in manufacturing and the foundry sector in the UK, with UK manufacturing being at its highest output for ten years. Manufacturing provides stability but we have challenges – we have to move with the times. There is a digital transformation and we have to understand the science better.

“We need to work together to influence strategy going forward. Manufacturing accounts for 45 per cent of all UK exports.”


Race to road

A keynote address was given by Iain Wright, business deveIopment director of Williams Advanced Engineering, who discussed the changes involved in evolving from a Formula one team to an advanced engineering team.

Formed in 1977, the Williams Group has won 16 world championships. Around 250 of the 950 people on site at the company work in advanced engineering, the remainder focus on F1.

He told delegates: “Williams is commercialising technology that is emanating from the Williams F1 arm. We are moving into the automotive market. We will take carbon composites into high volume production.”


A bright future

Speaking about a people-centred approach to strategic company development, Vikki Evans of the Swansea (Wales) site of Wall Colmonoy Ltd said: “The skills we require don’t come off the shelf so to meet our specific skill requirements we have developed a HR strategy for talent in-house.”

Currently the Welsh site has twelve apprentices with four more to join in September, comprising six per cent of the workforce.

Continuing professional development plays an important part in the company’s HR strategy and a talent development group was established in 2016 to drive the initiative.

“In addition to our HR strategy, employee engagement activities are also encouraged,” she said. “We have created an environment where we look after our people. We have worked on our housekeeping to maintain a clean and safe place for people to work and we have lots of interaction with our apprentices, which means listening to them.”

Wall Colmonoy was rewarded for its strategic approach to its training philosophy and in particular to maximising in-house talent to generate future company leaders, whilst understanding the importance of succession planning, when the company was shortlisted for the Company Achievement Award at the UK Cast Metals Industry Awards in November 2017.

During the Q&A session at CASTcon, Wall Colmonoy’s Steph Curtis said: “We are mindful that not everyone wants to be the next managing director – people are encouraged to find their own level. It is about incentivising people and showing that a commitment is there.”

The above is a mere taster of the presentations at CASTcon. In addition, there were a further 18 presentations from high calibre speakers including Prof John Cambell OBE who enthralled the audience in his inimitable style.

Thanks to support from Tor Lodge, a large number of students and apprentices also took part in the day and were able to rub shoulders with those shaping the cast metals industry in the UK – a true win/win situation.

FESA and CMF would like to thank all those who took part and supported the event including Tor Lodge and Applecross Trust, ICME and The Diecasting Society. It is hoped that CASTcon can once again become a regular event in the calendar.

*Casting Industry Census 2017, Cast Metals Federation.