Lowering the cost of local manufacturing
Australia’s automotive manufacturing industry is facing a number of challenges, including the rise of globalised export markets and movements in currency exchange rates. This is why Australian manufacturers are looking to innovative ways to lower their production costs and boost their competitiveness.
One of the key players in the automotive supply chain, Nissan Casting Australia, manufactures and exports castings and parts for the global automotive industry. This includes components for its zero-emission electric car the Leaf, as well as 38 other models sold internationally.
Many of these parts are made by pressing molten metal into moulds using a process called high pressure vacuum assisted die casting.
Up until recently, Nissan used commercially available mechanical shut off valves as part of this process, which have less than one millisecond to snap shut if they detect that molten metal has entered the valve. Often, the valves would not shut in time and the molten aluminium caused frequent machine stoppage.
A patented technology delivering benefits to Nissan
Working with Nissan and the CAST Cooperative Research Centre, we set out to develop a better vacuum valve that was more reliable and cost less to maintain.
In the harsh environment of high temperatures, high pressures and high velocity molten metal, precision is crucial. The team quickly identified a potential solution using a proven technology known as chill vents. Chill vents are essentially a narrow washboard shaped channel which the molten metal passes through. In doing so, the molten metal solidifies within the washboard, effectively shutting off like a valve but with no moving parts.
However, the issue with chill vents is that they are inefficient – a show stopper because a vacuum must be formed within less than half a second to achieve the required casting quality.
The breakthrough came when the researchers came up with a 3D version of the chill vent which overcame all the shortcomings of conventional chill vents and conventional mechanical shut off vacuum valves. The innovation was named CASTvac.
CASTvac was patented and prototypes tested under production conditions at Nissan Casting Australia. Over a five year period of continual development and improvement the CASTvac valve was deployed across a number of casting machines at Nissan.
Casting a new future for Australia's auto industry
Nissan Australia has adopted CASTvac on many of their products, saving them up to $100,000 each year in the production of a single component.
In April 2015, Managing Director of Nissan Casting Australia, Peter Jones, announced that Nissan would continue to manufacture components locally at its facility in South Dandenong until well beyond 2020. He acknowledged the role R&D investment had played in securing Nissan's future. In particular, the company's collaboration with CSIRO to develop CASTvac.
"It's a great example of the collaboration that we have with the CSIRO," he said.
"And I'm very proud to say they're part of the reason why we've secured even more business from Nissan Global. Some of it will be exclusive to Nissan Casting Australia. Our manufacturing facility has been awarded more manufacturing work. And it won't be based only on our proven competitiveness and quality, but it will also be based on the high skill of our staff."
CASTvac is now licensed to Wanda Technology, which is owned by our lead scientist on the project, Dr Laihua Wang, and is now marketed worldwide.