And why they will literally make or break your next product
Mistakes in the world of metalcasting can kill a project, so you can’t take any chances from start to finish.
Understanding the critical aspects of casting design and production will help you create the best process for your parts, giving you a leg up on less-informed competitors.
In this article, we’ll describe metalcasting principles like wall thickness requirements for a sound part, how tooling accounts for everything from cost to product lifecycle and why secondary finishing impacts lead time and investment.
Here are the ten questions you’ll need to answer to perform this complex manufacturing process with speed and confidence.
Question 1: What is your annual usage?
It’s critical to create your production process around the goals for your final product.
Things like quality standards and production volumes should be in the books before the planning phase.
The sweet spot for mold casting is 500 to 35,000 units produced annually. Low volume parts are better suited for a process like sand casting. If it’s a high volume part, it’s best to invest in a die cast tool, unless there are design criteria that die cast cannot control, such as pressure tightness for car wheels.
Many of our projects fall in the 3,000 to 12,000 range.
It’s important to prepare the permanent mold to keep pace with your long-term production goals.
You need to know the return on investment for your tooling and how long your operation can wait to realize those investments.
- Are you in the production sweet spot of 500 to 35,000 parts annually?
- Does your operation have the right process to reliably meet tolerance requirements?
- Can you minimize set up costs and pass savings to the customer?
Question 2: What is the end application?
You won’t know the best way to make a part unless you know how it will be used.
If the product doesn’t work in the field, projects have to be abandoned or reimagined. Your set up costs substantially contribute to your final piece price. Maintaining product quality across longer runs with greater quantities can also lower piece prices.
Project engineers without metalcasting experience may not know what to ask the foundry to assure the parts are strong or aesthetically pleasing enough to serve their purpose.
Does it need to have a clean finish? Does it need to be leakproof? Does this industry fall under any regulations?
We stand behind the drawing specifications to ensure that the part is made to the quality standards dimensionally and metallurgically. If the part is to be pressure tight, the foundry should understand the quality standard or testing parameters.
To put this in perspective, recently a purchasing manager came to us after struggling with a couple of suppliers to produce a cover piece for the transportation industry. They couldn’t find a way to make the part structurally strong enough to meet requirements while maintaining a pleasing aesthetic.
The part had to be structurally sound and leak-proof, but appearance was perhaps the most important aspect.
We worked with the customer to find the perfect permanent mold solution for all of their problems, because we took the time to ask the client the right questions at the beginning of the process, such as their surface finishing and cast strength requirements.
- Do you have experience in the field?
- Are you asking the right questions?
- Are there any applicable regulations?
- Are there any better design opportunities?
Question 3: What is the size of the piece?
There’s a pretty big sweet spot for sizing permanent mold casting products. It can be anywhere from 2 ounces to 110 pounds, though a lot of our products are in the 3- to 30-pound range.
Large products can cause design constraints and few permanent mold foundries have the equipment necessary for those jobs. Sand castings are more common for large castings.
But we can make fairly heavy parts.
A healthcare provider needed a heavy base to provide a better center of gravity to its medical carts.
We created the base with zinc, which is twice as dense as aluminum, offering a smaller but heavier product.
Zinc costs roughly 25% more per pound than aluminum, but the cost of tooling has a far greater impact on your bottom line than material expenses, so switching to zinc doesn’t necessarily mean your parts will be more expensive if it simplifies the casting process.
And zinc can be polished to a near mirror finish, so it looks good as well.
- Is it within the sweet spot of 2 ounces to 110 pounds?
- Are there constraints on gating and mold design?
- Is it manufacturable?
Question 4: What’s the product’s history?
It’s important to know background information like if a product is completely new or already available for purchase.
If it’s in production, how is it manufactured, and could the process be improved within budget?
We work with fabrication manufacturers to rethink their existing products. A Carolina manufacturing company asked us to turn a formerly fabricated part into a single permanent mold casting. We cut costs and created a stronger product by combining multiple parts into one casting.
The part was previously composed of at least eight separate pieces mechanically fastened together.
Our version was one solid piece, so it was much stronger than before. And since the casting process doesn’t involve assembly, it proved to be cheaper and quicker than fabrication.
The company paid off its tooling in just a few months, and only had to use one part and one supplier to produce and control it.
- Is it a new or existing product?
- Why are you looking to change the process, and are there any existing problems?
- Can the deficiencies be improved upon?
- Can the designs be improved?
- Is your design flexible to adapt to permanent mold casting?
Question 5: Will you need engineering support?
Working with a dedicated metalcasting foundry during the design phase will allow you to make parts with better lead times. After all, this is what we do all day, every day.
While it’s best to approach a foundry before the part has been fully designed, customers have come to us with complete specs but don’t know how to make them a reality.
We take the product apart, run tests and perform finite element analysis on the casting process to help aid in designing the production system. We can also print 3D prototypes to get a sense of the structure before you invest in tooling.
We review the molten metal flow as it’s poured into the casting, watching it take shape. Analyzing the flow of molten metal for turbulence will allow us to identify possible weak spots in the casting.
Once the process is perfected, we should be confident everything is ready for production.
Our scanning technology can also be used to digitally recreate existing parts on the computer and look for new improvements to old designs. We’ve taken an existing product without any documentation and reverse-engineered it into a 3D model, which we used to design new steel tooling.
We also perform any secondary machining before the parts leave our facilities, but not every foundry has these capabilities, so it’s important to know upfront what an individual foundry can offer.
- Do they have in-house engineering?
- Is the lead time approved?
- Are all the critical design features understood?
- Are your engineers talking to their engineers?
Question 6: What are the lead time and scheduling requirements?
Before a foundry can work on a project, they need to know your lead time expectations and production schedule to decide if a permanent mold solution can fit your timeframes.
All of your expectations need to be presented upfront, especially if you’re working with a tight production schedule.
An engineering manager contacted us several years ago to produce a part for the boating industry that was already designed as a permanent mold.
However, it was almost Christmas, and they wanted parts in a very short time. But we worked out all of the details and began production without a moment wasted.
The product had pressure tightness specifications and required internal cavities, which had to be created with a sand core when casting. Permanent molding is great at creating pressure-tight castings but we had to use our creative side and move into the semi-permanent molding with the sand core process.
We went on to make 350 of those parts per week for 20 years, and we’re still running another part for that client.
- Are your expectations realistic?
- When does the clock start ticking?
- Do you understand key stage gates?
Question 7: What are your finishing requirements?
The appearance of a product isn’t always a major factor, but when it is, it’s one of the most important.
Castings should have a nice smooth surface right out of the mold if mold coatings and draft angles are used effectively.
Scabbing and blemishes can occur if the mold coating breaks down. Draft angles must be adjusted to maintain the coating throughout an entire shift. Insufficient drafting creates a greater chance for metal-on-metal interaction, which can break down the coating and damage the finish. Increasing draft lets applied coatings remain consistent across continued pours.
The design team for a high-rise construction project asked us to produce an architectural component that had to be highly accurate and fit against extrusion pieces to complete the exterior layout for the next 30-plus years.
We worked closely with the client to produce a part that looked great and fit perfectly with the rest of the design.
- Can you control the finish of you casting coming out of the mold?
- Are processes controlled by one source or multiple?
- What is your control lead time, quality, design?
Question 8: What are your wall thickness and draft requirements?
The wall thickness of a casting has to be just right to limit weight while maintaining material strength.
Generally, the minimum wall thickness for a permanent mold is about .18 inches to ensure there’s enough space for the molten metal to settle as air escapes the mold. However, we’ve gone down to .125 inches in select portions of a casting, and the walls can also be trimmed down in secondary operations.
The thicker a portion of the molding, the longer it will take to cool. Parts that are consistently portioned throughout the mold will cool faster, improving throughput.
The draft angle refers to the angle at which the part will smoothly slide from the mold with a high-quality finish, as mentioned in the last question. The minimum functional draft angle is three degrees, but it can be increased to five degrees to help maintain mold coatings.
- Are the walls too thick or too thin?
- Is air evacuating the cavity?
- Is there any shrinking/porosity?
Question 9: What are your as cast tolerances?
Foundry workers can occasionally take parts out of the mold, saw off the gate, trim it up and put it right into the assembly.
Understanding the secondary processes needed to turn the casted product into the end application should be taken into account at the beginning of the project.
We make it a point to perform all of the work in our facilities, but not every foundry takes this approach. That’s why you need to know if the foundry can perform secondary machining in house or if they will need to outsource operations, adding time and money to the production.
- Is part near/net shape?
- Are there any secondary machining and clean up cuts?
Question 10: Have you budgeted for tooling?
A good portion of every project’s budget goes toward tooling, so you need to be aware of how long it will take to make a return on that investment as compared to its expected lifetime, especially for long-term projects.
We recently completed a job for a cereal company that had experience with a variety of casting methods. But their engineers didn’t have our specialized experience in permanent mold casting.
Our engineers helped them compare permanent molds to other forms of metalcasting and discussed what the process can consistently offer their operation.
Moving to a permanent mold solved porosity and air entrapment issues experienced using sandcasting and die casting processes on other units.
- What is your expected return on investment?
- What process is best? Permanent mold, sand casting or die casting?
- What is the expected life of your tooling?
Want to learn more?
These 10 questions encapsulate a textbook’s worth of information in a blog-sized package, so if you’d like to dig deeper into the permanent mold casting process, please reach out to us. We love talking shop.
If you’re considering a metalcasting project, we can offer valuable insight that could save your company time, money and resources.