Many of us drive a car every day and will be aware that to build a car, it takes more companies than just the car-maker. When it came to stamping sheet metal into car body parts, until now, automobile manufacturers where facing a dilemma: use expensive but durable steel, or use rather less expensive nodular iron - cast iron containing nodules of graphite - and put up with a shorter service life and more maintenance to combat its higher wear.
Kenneth Kjellsson is Technology Area Leader for dies, a material-shaping device, at Swedish car maker Volvo Car Group, the biggest participant in the project: ‘Imagine a nodular iron die as a sand bed, and imagine raindrops falling on it. You'll notice a lot of pits on the surface of the sand. If you can decrease the size of these pits, it will result in two major advantages: the sheet material stamped in the die will be smoother and of higher quality, and the wear of the die will be more effectively controlled.’
The participants in the FUNIF research project, SMEs specialising in metallurgy , research institutes and Volvo, one of the biggest European car makers, have revolutionised the surface structure in dies by developing a new type of nodular iron for casting tools. The partners pooled their expertise and developed a new formula for nodal iron in dies which significantly improves its properties.
EUREKA, a European organisation supporting transnational research teams in developing market-oriented innovations was instrumental in the coordination of the project. Dr. Carl Justus Heckmann, manager for FUNIF project at the German research and consultancy firm IfG, explains: ‘Funding in our case was provided by ZIM, the central innovation programme for SMEs in Germany. It does help your case if you can show that you are able to work on an international project coordinated by a supranational organisation, and that a European intergovernmental body wants to see your project succeed.’
‘IT DOES HELP YOUR CASE IF YOU CAN SHOW THAT YOU ARE ABLE TO WORK ON AN INTERNATIONAL PROJECT.'
Although it is too early to quantify the full benefit of the improved dies, all participants were satisfied with the outcome and optimistic about the impact of their innovation. ‘Most importantly, the project greatly increased our understanding about what is happening in both the process of producing dies and during the actual casting. Thanks to that we now know what we need and also what we can achieve through technical collaborations with foundries. To gather all this new knowledge on our own in Sweden would not have been possible,’ says Volvo Cars' Kenneth Kjellsson, the coordinator of the project.
The innovative research data gathered during the FUNIF project is expected to become a reference beyond the car industry. Foundries producing enhanced dies are expected to generate new business opportunities by using the project’s results, notably in the wind energy sector.