TTU partnerships through CMR helping improve metal casting industry

Groundbreaking partnerships established by Tennessee Tech University stand ready to change the face of metal casting, an industry that supplies engineered components or castings for 90 percent of all manufactured goods and equipment in the United States.

With recent funding of a $3.24 million project by the U.S. Department of Energy, Tennessee Tech’s Center for Manufacturing Research is stepping in to support an industry that supplies the country with motor vehicle parts, engine blocks, pipes, industrial machinery and other products vital to the U.S. economy and national security.

TTU, in conjunction with The Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Walford Technologies Inc. as primary partners, is leading a team including nine private companies to solve challenges within the metal casting industry that inhibit efficiency and cost effectiveness.

“Currently, the U.S. metal casting industry is losing jobs, and our approach to help curb this trend is to improve processes so that quality is increased, costs are lowered, and new products are developed to create new markets for the industry,” said CMR Director Ken Currie.

Targeted development drives the team, which includes members from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and several private companies, to improve the metal casting process, said Graham Walford, a project partner whose company Walford Technologies Inc. in Oak Ridge specializes in the measurement of products during the production process.

“As individual groups we have limited resources, but in true partnership where we all share the result, we have everything we need for success,” said Walford.
The current challenge is to take measurements of the metal casting process at various stages in order to detect flaws or the potential for errors.

“Until now, the metal casting process, most often pouring molten iron into sand castings, could only be evaluated by the end product,” said Mohamed Abdelrahman, a TTU associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who heads the project.

“There were no tools or methods to take intermediate measurements — such as the soundness and size of the sand casting or flaws in the filling process — until we began working on sensor technologies that provide real-time data.”

Walford said no company, university or government agency uniquely has the resource or capability to create the whole solution.

“The unique instrumentation and its associated technology needed for our project is available in The Oak Ridge National Laboratory but is likely too expensive for most universities,” he said. “However, project use of this resource fits well with the industrial team to validate practical and cost effective measurement solutions for process improvement and control.”

A company such as Walford Technologies Inc., which brings end user experience and expertise in non-invasive measuring procedures (X-ray, optical, laser scanning, sonic, electric field perturbation) to the project, can offer those technologies in return for the benefits received from the partnership.

“The CMR is remarkably flexible and dynamic when it comes to this type of research,” said Walford. “This complements the partner organizations that may have production and other demands on their resources yet must make product improvement. At TTU we can tailor testing to meet our respective needs and take advantage of the creativity of students.

“The pervading atmosphere at Tennessee Tech is ‘We can get things done,’” he said. “With that attitude, a live foundry and good students and people to spare, TTU can be responsive to the needs of the industry.”

Adelrahman says the CMR benefits from both the expertise and resources of companies and government agencies while playing a role only the university can provide.

“What we bring to the table is a multidisciplinary approach to the research,” said Abdelrahman. “To reach our broad goals as a team, we must understand the thermal, mechanical and chemical properties of patterns and molds. The Center offers the collaborative talents of mechanical, chemical and electrical engineers to solve problems.”

Currie, Walford and Abdelrahman agree that that the ultimate success of the partnerships will result in opening new markets, thus allowing U.S. companies to stem the tide of metal casting jobs being lost to other countries.

“When we truly understand how to create a defect-free product, we can create more complex shapes,” said Walford. “With the ability to increase the complexity, we can produce products that are lighter and stronger. This can lead to new markets for light-weight components that are cost effective and energy efficient.

Answering that call is what TTU hopes to accomplish in the next three years.

“If we can create different levels of castings that are high-quality and cost-effective, we can make a difference in the future of the metal casting industry,” said Currie.

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