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Technical article “ecoMetals” (long version)
The pursuit of energy efficiency and the economical use of natural resources are establishing themselves as megatrends in all areas of the economy. In view of global climate change, new approaches are called for – and the foundry industry in particular is demonstrating its capabilities as a problem solver in all stages of value creation. The GIFA/METEC/THERMPROCESS/NEWCAST trade fair quartet will be presenting especially sustainable innovations within the new “ecoMetals” campaign. A special logo attracts visitors’ attention to the eco-eyecatchers.
Achieving more with less energy, devising clever material loops, protecting the climate – the foundry industry is already an acknowledged pioneer when it comes to effective recycling of materials. More than 90 per cent of all the parts it produces are made by melting down scrap. “The pursuit of materials efficiency and climate protection are major challenges for the German and European foundry industry,” says Max Schumacher, environment expert of the German Foundry Association (BDG). “The economical use of energy and materials is becoming an increasingly important competitive factor. At the same time, expectations are rising as a result of public debates centring on climate change. The industry is part of the solution.”
Messe Düsseldorf is also giving prominence to the trend towards higher environmental awareness: With the “ecoMetals” campaign, the organisers will be spotlighting outstanding innovations at the four international trade fairs GIFA, METEC, THERMPROCESS and NEWCAST. Exhibitors presenting substantially new developments in energy and resource efficiency from 28 June to 2 July 2011 will attract special attention by participating in the “ecoMetals” initiative. Friedrich-Georg Kehrer, Director of the trade fair quartet confidently asserts: “The trend to responsible use of resources is particularly prevalent in the foundry industry. Companies that take the right steps here can sharpen their competitive profile and emerge from the crisis stronger than before.”
Bar set high
At the trade fair, exhibits and stands of participating companies will be marked with the ecoMetals logo. More efficient machines and systems are not the only things needed – the ecoMetals approach also includes progressive processes, services and solutions, all of which ultimately benefit both the climate and the economy. “As organisers of the leading international trade fair, it is only natural for us to focus on such an important theme,” says trade fair director Kehrer. “All of the ecoMetals solutions being presented can claim to be groundbreaking in their respective markets, viable and sustainable.”
This comes at the right time: Although the foundry industry does not rank among the major industrial emitters of greenhouse gases, the industry has already been contributing to climate protection for a long time through its use of progressive technologies, says the industry association BDG. Even for business reasons alone, the companies have been constantly endeavouring to improve their entire value chain in terms of energy and materials efficiency, often in ways unnoticed by the general public. In today’s foundries it is already standard practice to run many processes – from water to mould materials – in closed loops.
Regulatory or environmental policy requirements are not the only drivers here. “Demand for more energy-efficient products is a constantly recurring factor on the customer side as well,” says trade fair director Friedrich-Georg Kehrer. After all, resource-saving pays off directly in terms of profitability, and manufacturers everywhere are therefore optimising their systems and processes – no matter whether their business is building energy-saving industrial furnaces, engineering new alloys, casting robust rotor hubs for wind-energy plants or designing rigid light-metal components for cars.
Intensive research as a key driver
The industry also collaborates closely with the scientific community. Energy efficiency and resource conservation have long been a focal area of research at the Institute of Metallurgy of the Technical University of Clausthal. Babette Tonn, professor of foundry technology at the Institute of Metallurgy can look back on considerable achievements in this field: “Increasing efficiency during production presents multiple challenges with each new part or component. We have successfully addressed these for items ranging from small cylinder heads to large power station turbines.” The researcher stresses the importance of considering the entire process chain. Doing contract research for industry, her working group has also helped to develop improved smelting furnaces which operate much more efficiently than their predecessors.
Varying the composition of casting alloys is another way of improving efficiency: “We have developed aluminium alloys which do without expensive or rare alloying elements such as nickel. And they are also highly resistant to soiling,” says the professor. The challenges facing the foundry industry are clear: With growing eco-awareness, lightweight constructions are becoming widespread in vehicle manufacture. At the same time, the power density of engines is increasing – and cast parts like cylinder heads are being designed with ever more complex geometries. “We are responding to these requirements by developing high-strength materials that cast well. In the past, these were difficult to process and therefore had a limited application spectrum,” says Tonn. Innovative light metals are an important building block for achieving climate protection.
Tonn points out another way of saving resources and hence costs: reducing the amount of post-processing on castings automatically cuts the required raw material and energy input. “Compound casting, for instance, can eliminate extensive reworking,” says the professor. “Conventional aluminium alloys require heat treatment. By using new alloys which achieve the same strength it is possible to shorten the heat treatment step or even eliminate it altogether.” These developments show that the foundry industry is well able to respond to the new demands. But the important thing is to keep on innovating, says Tonn: “Continuous research and the use of new technologies is the only way to secure the long-term future of the important foundry locations.”
Growing interest in emerging economies as well
Global climate warming and shortages of natural resources have put energy and materials efficiency on the international agenda. Given the rise in energy prices and the volatility of the commodity markets, the urgency of the situation is becoming increasingly evident. For Heinz-Jürgen Büchner, an analyst at IKB Deutsche Industriebank, the signs are clear: “Electricity will not get any cheaper in the coming years,” says Büchner. “So energy efficiency will become even more important.”
Industrial furnaces, which are needed to manufacture and process metals, are therefore also a focus of attention in this respect. For example, electricity accounts for 45 to 60 per cent of the overall costs for producing primary aluminium, as the electrolysis – an essential step in the process – unavoidably eats up energy. The resulting product, however, is a recyclable material with many uses which helps to protect the climate. Nevertheless, depending on the industrial prices for electricity in their region, smelters and casters are already having difficulty operating competitively – and some European manufactures are even considering site closures. Energy efficiency is therefore becoming an existential issue, alongside the political discussions regarding electricity prices.
Internationally, more and more companies are focusing on resource conservation. Even in highly industrialised nations like the USA, the need to rethink old ways is now being recognised – the change in behaviour being driven here by economic reasons. “The gigantic oil price hikes of 2008 sharpened awareness in the USA. Many companies are now taking steps, also with the help of consultants, to improve their processes and production equipment and make them more resource-efficient.” The equation is a simple one: less waste in production benefits the environment – and helps to save money.
According to Büchner, the effects should by no means be underestimated: “If a furnace operator manages to cut electricity or gas consumption by ten per cent through intelligent upgrading of furnace controls, that can have a colossal impact on profitability.” Investing in energy efficiency and resource conservation can achieve major results in a short time. “This kind of capital expenditure often pays back in just two to three years.”
Simulation technology avoids trial and error
Another way foundries can save considerable amounts of energy is to use simulation techniques. The Aachen-based company MAGMA Gießereitechnologie offers such software for simulating casting processes – and is presenting itself as a participant in the ecoMetals initiative. “Despite efficient use, the cost of energy and materials still accounts for more than 40 per cent of expenditure in foundries and is therefore just as high as the labour costs,” says Jörg Sturm, head of sales and engineering at Magma.
Smelting and solidification of metallic materials is inherently energy-intensive. “On average, it takes 2,000 kilowatt hours to produce one tonne of good castings,” says Sturm. Part of this could be saved by simulating the process all the way through and optimising it before the first part is cast: “Simulation makes it possible to design the casting technology to achieve the best results, both technically and economically. This cuts expenditure in two areas – material input and smelting requirements,” says Sturm. The fewer trial castings there are to reach fitness for series production, the better – especially as this also reduces the consumption of mould materials and consumables.
Simulation also helps to improve foundry operations in other ways – by speeding up processes, for example. In mass production, it can reduce the time between casting cycles, and it can help to adjust the heating and cooling of dies. The effort required for fettling, raw parts machining and repair welding as well as heat treatment decreases when the manufacturing process has been optimally streamlined.
Supplier of environmental technology
Energy efficiency is becoming a crucial competitive asset: faced with unabated price pressures, foundries are trying to exploit the advantages of using energy and raw materials in the most efficient way possible to their own benefit. “We will have to keep cushioning unpredictable price hikes in raw materials and energy in the future as well,” says Max Schumacher of the German Foundry Association.
Compared to manufacturing techniques like joining or machining, casting does have a very favourable starting point: “The experience of recent years has shown just how capable casting is of achieving energy savings in a range of very different products by providing lightweight designs that can be produced in near-net shapes," says Schumacher. He emphasises the good cooperation between foundry equipment manufacturers and foundries, which has substantially helped to achieve progress in improving energy efficiency in production.
Foundries not only display “clean competence” but they also serve major greentech growth sectors such as energy, mobility and automation, which in turn set decisive milestones for sustainable development. The pressure to innovate is therefore correspondingly high. Customer demands also open up many new business opportunities for foundries. For example, users in the mobility sector expect their casting suppliers to deliver innovative approaches for extremely lightweight designs. “For the foundry industry, this constitutes both a challenge and new prospects,” says Hans-Dieter Honsel, President of the German Foundry Association. The ecoMetals initiative accompanying the four international technology trade fairs in Düsseldorf offers the ideal platform for companies to position themselves.
Contact: Press Office GIFA, METEC, THERMPROCESS, NEWCAST 2011
Tania Vellen and Corinna Kuhn
Tel: +49 (0) 211/4560-518/598
Fax: +49 (0) 211/4560-87 010