A small Windsor shop is home to what it believes is the new wave of mold texturing.
The GF AgieCharmilles laser ablation machine at ICS Laser Technologies Inc. is one of only two in Canada and just a handful in North America. But, says ICS President Ian Murray, interest in the technology for mold texturing is growing in Europe and within the global auto industry.
“It's just a matter of time until this becomes the process of choice,” Murray said.
Laser ablation uses a pulsed, fiber-optic laser to sublimate material, turning it from solid to gas. It has been used in other industries previously, but AgieCharmilles LLC of Lincolnshire, Ill. — part of Swiss company Georg Fischer AG — expanded it to mold making, using five-axis technology and automation to allow users to achieve up to 50 different layers of texture onto a mold. Traditional chemical etching allows only three to five layers.
The additional layers allow for more detail on the texture, while the digital controls ensure repeatable textures on multiple molds. That means companies can produce the same texture on multiple molds made in multiple locations and retain the same grain pattern across multiple parts, said Gisbert Ledvon, business development manager for AgieCharmilles, in a written statement.
“Some manufacturers may think that variation is acceptable between components, but it becomes a much more apparent issue when thinking in terms of complex molds that require multiple inserts,” Ledvon said. “In those instances, differences between the various inserts can result in a visibly inconsistent surface across the part.”
ICS brought in its Laser 1000 5Ax machine from AgieCharmilles during the summer and has been introducing it to customers and fine-tuning its operations.
ICS may seem to be an unlikely toehold for texturing technology in the Detroit and Windsor region. ICS is not a texturing company and it is not a toolmaker. But, Murray notes, the three-man operation has years of experience with laser etching and a reputation as a specialist providing outside services to the region's mold-making industry.
The firm began as a maker of mold plaques, and now is a laser-etching specialist for finished tools — adding logos and lettering, such as the “air bag” notice on multiple instrument panel molds.
“When I first saw this a year and a half ago, I could see that it was the wave of the future,” Murray said.
ICS is one of the few independent shops in North America offering laser ablation. Texturing specialist Custom Etch Inc. of New Castle, Pa., is another, launching a few months before ICS.
In addition to offering greater detail and more control across multiple molds, Murray noted that laser ablation can more easily mimic real-world textures in its digital brain and replicate that onto steel, aluminum, copper or any other metal mold base. A designer could copy the grain from a favorite leather coat, or the pattern from a wooden plank.
“If you want the look of a stone wall, then just pick your favorite picture of a stone wall,” he said.
The laser treatment also offers reduced environmental concerns compared to chemicals.
There are differences in the preparation time and the production time, however. Uploading the digital data for a laser ablation texturing could take four or five hours, compared to days of preparation for chemical etching, Murray said. The actual chemical process takes less time in actual production, however.
The machine at ICS is limited to a mold weighing less than 1,700 pounds, although AgieCharmilles sells larger machines.
Murray said he expects traditional mold-texturing operations to invest in laser texturing as the technology moves into more mainstream acceptance and more original equipment manufacturers look to use the system and urge more suppliers to invest in lasers.
At that point, he said, ICS will still have the same role in the tooling industry it has always had as an outside support firm, one that will allow it to continue to grow with the technology.