EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

BACKGROUND

Technological innovations have affected the foundry industry in major ways in recent years and will continue to do so. These innovations are enabling technologically sophisticated foundries to prosper in Japan, Europe, and the United States, while commodity foundries are being forced to move to areas where labor costs are lower. To examine how these currents of technical innovation and economic change have been playing out in Japan and Europe and what these changes augur for the industry -- particularly U.S. industry -- the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) provided funding for WTEC experts to take a systematic, on-site look at the foundry business -- and in particular its R&D side -- in Japan and Europe. The panel began the study with a week-long trip to Japan during early January 1996. In March 1996, three panelists visited additional sites in Europe. Altogether, the panel visited with researchers, management, and officials at 22 different facilities. The following are some of the panel's most important findings.

FINDINGS

In broad overview, the United States leads Europe in manufacturing but lags behind Japan. The United States leads Japan in engineering but lags behind Europe. Overall, the United States compares favorably with both. In all three -- Japan, Europe, and the United States -- critically important innovations in the foundry industry have occurred in both incremental technologies and in leapfrog technologies. Government has been most effective when it has focused on leapfrog technologies, providing the incentives and safety nets that encourage foundries and researchers to accept higher risks.

The panel's overall comparisons of the status and trends in advanced casting technologies and applications in the United States compared to that in Japan and Europe are shown in Table E.1. Other findings are as follows:

Table E.1
Comparisons Between the United States, Japan, and Europe in Advanced Casting R&D and Manufacturing

Key:
The number of X's indicates relative strength.
^ denotes new developments and initiatives pointing to strength in the future.
* ratings on Mexico based on Paul Mikkola's 1996 visits to Mexican foundries and related facilities (not formally a part of this study).

The following are additional observations by the panel:

In both Japan and Europe there is no extensive infrastructure for clean molten metal processing within metal casting operations. Casting operations in Japan do not use filtration, degassing, and other conventional molten metal processing technologies as a norm. However, both Japan and Europe have focused and continue to focus and direct substantial resources on research and development in electromagnetic treatment of molten metal as a technology to refine the melt as well as to manipulate solid-liquid interface conditions during solidification. The United States leads in the application of molten metal processing technologies, whereas Japan and Europe are more advanced in electromagnetics for molten metal processing

In the United States, an extended network of die manufacturers exists in the private sector to service and supply the die casting industry. In Japan, the die casters produce their own dies, and thus manufacturing is kept within a given "house." This allows the Japanese die casters to maintain close control of their proprietary designs; however, the rapid prototyping activities that one observes in both Europe and the United States far exceed current Japanese technology. Both the United States and Europe have an extensive secondary aluminum production industry, whereas Japan lags behind in this arena.

Japanese universities and research institutes are leading long-term R&D thrusts for the development of new materials casting technologies, with significant efforts being undertaken in amorphous metals, in intermetallics, in the application of magnetohydrodynamics to continuous casting of steel, and in energy efficient furnace technology. Industrial R&D is focused more on process improvements than on new product technologies, but significant efforts in new cast materials include cast metal matrix composites, materials substitutions for thinner wall products, and advanced ceramic products for foundry industry applications.

Die casting and its modern offshoots (e.g., squeeze casting, semisolid forming) are the preferred processes for thin section, near-net-shape light alloy components in the United States, Japan, and Europe. Lost foam casting effectively competes for some of this market in the United States and Europe. Semisolid forming is viewed by many in Europe and in Japan as the process of choice for higher integrity metal molded components.

Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan continue to look at new casting applications replacing forgings, stamping, and conversion of ferrous to nonferrous castings. The high cost of capital limits the number of process/product joint developments, semisolid forming for automotive applications being an exception. Ferrous casting developments have occurred in the area of investment cast components from golf clubs to rocker arms. Titanium and its alloys, as well as glassy metals, are material developments looking for markets. Titanium alloys have found some growth in the golf club market.

In the areas of special sand casting techniques, computer simulation of solidification, and the general level of metalcasting research activity in universities, Japan lags behind the United States and Europe. One important exception should be mentioned: thin section ferrous castings for weight reduction in the automotive market. The emphasis we saw in this area indicates that further developments may be expected.

The Japanese pride themselves on the quality of their products, yet cost pressures dominate management concerns. From a technology standpoint, the Japanese aim at continuous improvement. They are constantly seeking to lower costs while maintaining quality.

In assessing the state of Japanese foundry manufacturing compared to that in the United States, there are a number of significant points of interest:

Japanese foundries face many of the same problems as American foundries in the area of recruiting foundry workers and engineers. However, they emphasize training and maintaining the skills of their workers in an effort to retain those workers, much more so than in U.S. foundries. Government workplace safety and health regulations are not as rigorous in Japan as in the United States. Environmental consciousness is high in Japan.

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Published: March 1997; WTEC Hyper-Librarian