Casting on, casting out
The South African manufacturing industry is under pressure and our mineral resources, while rich and diverse, are not going to last forever. There is a need to develop solutions and platforms that address these issues.
Advanced Casting Technologies (ACT) is one organisation’s research group taking this concept to heart, using its expertise to establish an industry, boost local manufacturing, create international links and positively impact on economic activity.
Developing the capacity
The ACT research group at CSIR grew out of more than two decades of research and development into the field of investment and permanent mould castings. The team comprises engineers, metallurgists, technologists, scientists and technicians.
The group has achieved some impressive results, especially in the arena of titanium investment casting, an area requiring rare and advanced expertise and equipment.
“The story goes back a few years to the CSIR group’s original work in the late 1980s into investment casting,” explains Dr Gonasgren Govender, principal researcher, ACT research group. “The company created the technology to develop turbine blades in aircraft in collaboration with other organisations, such as the South African military.”
After the capability was no longer required, the company mainly focused on assisting industry in manufacturing components and developing them. It was doing the smaller jobs industry didn’t want post-1994.
The Titanium Investment Casting programme
Then, in 2005, the CSIR invested in a project established by the department of science and technology (DST) known as the Advanced Metals Initiative. This brought about the Ti IC (Titanium Investment Casting) programme.
“The CSIR was the custodian of light metals in the project. This came in two aspects — aluminium and titanium, with some work on magnesium,” says Govender. “Titanium can only be cast in a vacuum and we already had the facilities.”
They are the only facility in the southern hemisphere that can cast titanium and the research has focused on this since 2005. Govender says that they are now at a point where they can cast it well and, along with their previous work in investment casting, can now cast most alloy systems.
Passing knowledge to industry
Currently ACT focuses on high-end and niche high-value activities. The aim is to pass the knowledge gleaned from the processes onto the industry. They have established a high-end facility where they can expand into semi-commercial work, with a view to commercialisation.
Govender says they have also brought in a lot of young people as the group has grown, and trained them as the technology developed.
Establishing a titanium industry
In addition to moving South Africa onto the map when it comes to Ti IC, ACT has plans to strategically focus on titanium, aluminium and nickel-based alloys. South Africa has the second highest titanium ore resource in the world.
The titanium casting is part of Ti Centre of Competence, which encompasses a number of different research activities. These include extracting metal and developing the capability to convert metal into a product. Part of their goal is to establish a titanium metals casting industry in support of the establishment of the South African titanium industry.
“We wanted to develop an industry which can use titanium in the country, so we don’t sell it all out of South Africa, as we currently do. It adds very little value to us as it stands now,” says Govender.
He says they want to add value to products and investment casting is one of those techniques: “It is hugely important to both us and the country as not many companies in the world cast titanium, and they don’t share their knowledge. This has meant that our learning curve has been huge, but we can now confidently say we cast titanium and that we are one of these companies. This is so important for beneficiating minerals from South Africa.”
Because most titanium casting companies cannot exist purely on the work done around the mineral, these companies traditionally also have capabilities in aluminium, nickel and cobalt-based alloys, with a focus in high-value niche applications.
For ACT this has meant that they have been able to tap into their nickel-based super alloy casting capabilities. They have established the aluminium IC capability to support the business case for establishing a Ti IC commercial facility.
“We can provide the industry with specialised support in prototyping components, using investment casting, and we are helping a wider spectrum of the aluminium industry, even the sector which does extrusions,” says Govender.
“The knowledge we have gained through the SSM research activity has allowed us to impact on the much wider aluminium industry sector. It may not be as sexy as saying that we can cast titanium, but we are helping local industry to become more competitive.”
“South Africa’s manufacturing industry is shrinking and if we want to create jobs and increase GDP, we cannot just extract minerals, which will eventually be depleted,” says Govender. He says that we need to establish new industries, support and boost manufacturing and make transformative changes.
“We are focusing on these aspects around permanent mould casting of aluminium alloys, Ti IC, super-alloy casting, industry guidance and information sharing, so we can help overcome these challenges and make South Africa’s leadership in this arena into a reality,” concludes Govender.