After tackling the 3D printer, material and design, there's still one challenge left for Exco Engineering: convincing customers.
Article Excerpt from the December 2019 Modern Machine Shop issue
Die casting is a particularly harsh operation. The process involves forcing molten metal into a mold cavity at high pressure, and is commonly used to make automotive parts such as engine blocks, wheels and engine cradles. The tooling that produces these parts must be durable, and buyers are not likely to trust a new process easily. In other words, die cast tooling is not an obvious place to experiment — but the challenge of the process makes it exactly the kind of application that is ideal for testing the limits of metal 3D printing.
This is what Exco Engineering (located in Toronto) has done over the last four years. In an initiative led by Wes Byleveld, now director of additive manufacturing, the company has not only proven that 3D printed tooling can withstand the die cast process, but that it also provides benefits to that process in the form of better cooling, reduced cycle time and longer tool life.
Getting to this point has been an uphill battle. Steps along the way have involved finding the right metal printer that could handle the work; a change in material; and pushing the limits of conventional design rules with simulation. Mr. Byleveld and his team still aren’t finished. The challenge Exco faces now? Explaining to customers the value that this 3D printed tooling offers.
Wes Byleveld has gotten used to working backward in his sales pitches. The bottom line, he tells Exco Engineering's automotive customers, is that additively manufactured die cast components can provide a distinct competitive edge. He shows how 3D-printing conformal cooling channels close to the surface of these tools creates a thermally balanced die and how the benefits cascade into decreased cycle time, lower scrap rates and lower labor costs. And yes, he goes on to say, the mechanical performance of inserts and water jackets printed with maraging steel, which is suitable for sintering via the power-bed fusion (PBF) process, equals or exceeds the performance of H13 tool steel. Using thermal stress simulations and real-world testing, he presents years' worth of research that backs up his claims.
It's a pitch that Byleveld has made with a good deal of success for Exco, where he serves as director of additive manufacturing for the largest high-pressure die cast tool builder in North America. Exco's top customer are the Detroit Three automakers, bu the list extends to just about every major automotive brand know to the United States.
The result of Byleveld and Exco Additive's work is that several powertrain body and structural components on the road today or in the near future will likely be produced with 3D-printed die cast tools. Considering that roughly 70 million cards are produced each year, this is no small feat. But more impressive — and more important to the way we think about additive manufacturing's role in the industrial landscape — is how Exco incorporated metal 3D printing into one of the harshest manufacturing environments imaginable. As Byleveld explains, it started with simple curiosity.