Aluminum tooling for mainstream injection molded auto parts is continuing to gather interest, with Ford Motor Co. executives urging mold makers and molders alike to learn more about using it.
Aluminum tooling has its place and there are a ton of applications for it, but it's not for every single part, said Patricia Tibbenham, a technical expert at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford.
Tibbenham organized and led a discussion on aluminum tooling during the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive TPO conference Oct. 7 in Sterling Heights, pulling together material suppliers, mold makers and mold parts suppliers.
Ford began researching aluminum tooling for injection molded parts in 2005 and has worked closely with a team of molders, mold makers and other suppliers as it gradually moved through testing for a variety of parts, Tibbenham said in an Oct. 6 interview.
Aluminum holds the promise of potential cost savings across the supply chain. The softer material is easier and faster to machine into tools, meaning lower labor costs and less wear and tear for mold makers. Molders can run aluminum tools faster on existing presses, which should translate to faster cycle times by 30 percent or more, and lower production costs. Automakers benefit from reduced piece costs.
Historically, aluminum was seen solely as a material for molds in prototype parts or for low-volume production of 5,000 parts or less. But improvements in aluminum alloys and advances in production of aluminum tooling by companies like DRS Industries Inc. of Holland, Ohio, and Paragon Die & Engineering Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., prompted Ford to take a fresh look at aluminum. The two toolmakers joined Ford, aluminum maker Alcoa Inc. and tooling components supplier PSG Plastic Service Group Inc. of Stevensville, Mich., in discussing aluminum during the conference.
At the same time, the auto industry was shifting away from ultrahigh-volume production and toward a wider variety of vehicles many of them offering a mix of trim levels. As a result, it might be more typical to see annual production levels closer to 100,000 vehicles per year than 1 million for a single platform, Tibbenham said.
But all that potential does not guarantee success.
As with implementing any brand-new technology, the learning curve can sometimes be painful, with mistakes. Lots of people have stories of aluminum tooling gone wrong, she said.
To begin with, aluminum is more suited toward plastics like polyolefins and thermoplastic elastomers, and parts without a high content of structural glass reinforcement, Tibbenham said.
Aluminum also has to be handled differently from the very start. Because it can be heated and cooled faster than steel, mold designers need to plot out different cooling lines, flow lines and components specifically for the alloy. Molders need to adjust presses in order to run molds specifically for aluminum, and must learn new repair techniques.
Aluminum maker Alcoa Inc. of Pittsburgh introduced a tougher alloy for plastics tooling in 2006, and has been working with mold makers and mold texture specialists to develop ways to spot-weld aluminum tools and repair the grain inside the mold, said Ron Smierciak, an account manager for Cleveland-based Alcoa Forged Products.
The next issue we tackle will be how we respond to engineering changes that come up, he said.
Many of the issues the industry faces now reflect the fact that the companies were all very familiar with steel tools, Smierciak said. They spent decades refining toolmaking, repairs and handling with steel.
It's a whole paradigm shift and each point in the value chain has to learn what that means, Tibbenham said.
Ford is not alone in investing time and money in aluminum tooling for high-value production. Honda Motor Co. Ltd. began using aluminum tooling for parts on its Accord sedan in 2007 and research is going on at other automakers.
This is not just a momentary interest, Tibbenham said, but rather a move that the industry needs to find out more about, and learn what impact it will have on their firms.
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