High-Tech Upgrades in Higher Education

Kim Phelan

Dr. Milan Rakita, FEF key instructor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is sitting in his office facing a Magmasoft casting simulation on his screen. A lab full of freshmen will begin in an hour, and they’ll be up to their wrists manually packing sand molds with mallets. Rakita is looking forward to the expressions on their faces in a few weeks when, as the curriculum moves forward, they experience the indescribable sensation of producing castings with brand-new, sophisticated equipment inside the school’s new 3,400-sq-ft smart foundry.

All New at Purdue 

In 2020, Purdue tore down an outdated metalcasting lab and in its place constructed the new Gateway building in which four smart manufacturing facilities are housed: a smart factory, a continuous process lab, an Industrial Internet of Things lab, and a smart foundry that was designed and deployed by AFS Corporate Member Sinto, which both donated its own equipment and services and secured discounts on other equipment. The faculty, staff, students, and technologies of Purdue’s School of Engineering moved into their bright and pristine environment in January 2023, and as recent as November, a spectrometer and other equipment was still being commissioned. Sensors and automated data collection will be coming in 2024.

“It is not just a lab,” said Rakita, “but a fully functional green sand foundry with a closed-loop automated sand system, a molding machine, and a combination of gravity and powered roll conveyors for mold transport, as well as an enclosed melting and pouring area with an induction furnace for ferrous alloys, dip-out furnace for aluminum, and a robot for automated pouring of aluminum alloys.

“We take a hands-on approach to teaching by applying theoretical knowledge to real products and manufacturing processes through lab exercises and projects,” he added. “In the same spirit, smart manufacturing principles will be showcased to students through the development and manufacturing of new products. Casting is a very competitive technology capable of producing near-net shape in a very short time, so castings will have to be included in any realistic scenario. In order to integrate casting in smart manufacturing, we needed to bring in the cutting-edge foundry technology, so we decided to implement Sinto Smart Foundry to give our students a leg up in utilizing data to improve foundry processes and to showcase that metalcasting has some of the most advanced technology available.”

Dr. Ragu Athinarayanan, professor, was a key visionary who spearheaded the planning of the smart foundry, working closely with Lab Engineer Clayton Kibbey and Director of Operations Tim Updike, while Department Head Dr. Ken Burbank provided support.

Located in the lower level of Lambertus Hall, which is on one half of the Gateway building, the foundry is augmented with a brand-new material testing lab featuring a new tensile testing machine, macro and micro hardness testers, sample preparation, optical microscope, and a spectrometer. Adjacent to the foundry is a CNC machining lab with new lathe 3-axis and 5-axis machines, also new, which will be used to post-process the castings. A welding lab with eight booths is also situated next to the foundry.

As 2023 drew to a close, over $3 million had been invested in the smart foundry alone, not including gift-in-kind donations from AFS Corporate Members Caterpillar (which donated over $1 million) and Sinto, and many other donors and supporters including AFS Corporate Members Carpenter Brothers, HA International, Magmasoft, Simpson, and Waupaca Foundry. Purdue’s metalcasting program has a robust advisory board comprised of industry manufacturers and three Indiana-based foundries: AFS Corporate Members BCI, Ford Meter Box, and Plymouth Foundry. Additional support comes from Microsoft, Stellantis Kokomo Casting Plant, and Dalton Corp.

“All their support, including financial, in-kind, and overall support from many of their engineers was instrumental in bringing this foundry to life,” said Makita.

The smart factory, housed in Dudley Hall on the other half of Gateway, will be the foundry’s No. 1 internal customer, and the first project is the production of a skateboard.

Emphasis throughout the four highly-integrated smart manufacturing areas is squarely placed on the capture and utilization of data to inform casting processes, eliminate defects, and achieve consistently flawless casting production––all of which readies graduates for the evolving, data-centric environment that manufacturing is becoming.

“It is well known that it is very hard to find a useful predictive correlation between the production parameters and resulting quality,” said Makita. “We had a project where all the parameters were kept within tight limits, but nevertheless, some scrap did occasionally happen. The question is, has everything been measured that needs to be measured? One of the foundry’s missions is constant search for measurable conditions that can distinguish between production of good or bad casting. In that respect, our foundry can serve as a test-bed before the solution is implemented in production.”

To accomplish the complete vision of harnessing data to solve real-world foundry issues, Purdue is working with Microsoft to build an architecture that will connect the foundry to the cloud, said Athinarayanan. They’re also currently working on a Department of Energy-funded project is aimed at solving porosity.

“It's intended to help the foundry predict even before a porosity problem happens, he said. “It sees that the conditions are not right; it can take all the previous data and then predict into the future what's going to happen and take corrective actions. Our goal is that can we use intelligence in the casting process so that we can make better castings, and it's all driven by data. We can’t eliminate the waste in metalcasting, but we are hoping to make the process as perfect as possible, which will reduce wasted energy. What Microsoft brings to the table is that they allow us to build the intelligence from the data.”

University of Northern Iowa Blazes a Smart Path

Smart is catching on. At the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), faculty and leadership are on the cusp of updating a majority of its foundry equipment. The school was recently awarded $2 million funding from the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM) and has wasted no time allocating the money toward an equipment overhaul that will support the digitization of the campus foundry.

The purpose of the funding is to support defense supply chain resiliency, said Nate Bryant, assistant project manager at UNI’s Foundry 4.0 Center.

“With the support of data that we generate from equipment and processes, we can predict how well the metalcasting process is performing,” Bryant said. “But now, in order to do that, we needed to upgrade our equipment,” Bryant said. “The nice thing about that is, as a result of our federal obligations to do this research, the students are going to get hands-on experience with modern equipment. So now, when they go out into industry, they're already familiar with the state-of-the-art equipment instead of legacy equipment that we’ve had.”

The foundry renovation is a part of a greater renovation of the entire Department of Technology building Bryant explained. Phase 2 includes the foundry, and the team was on track to begin installing equipment in December with an expectation to be pouring metal in February.

The foundry shopping list is extensive as the team maximizes every dollar for the upgrade. They are acquiring a 600-lb. Simpson batch muller for greensand preparation and a Sinto automatic greensand molding machine, which will be integrated with each other. They’re also installing a CB 16 cold box unit, as well as an Armil preheat furnace that will be used to burn out and pre-heat investment casting shells. (The foundry has been primarily a sand facility, but is expanding into investment casting.)

In addition, UNI’s research foundry is getting a new shot blast machine for finishing, as well as utility items such as a new air compressor, new dust collection, and a new baghouse.

It’s a clean slate for the metalcasting group as they replace a Jenga-like assortment of very functional but dated equipment and pioneer into unchartered territory.

“We're essentially the U.S. pilot plant for new materials, new processes, anything that's going to be a long-term benefit to the industry,” said Bryant, “whether it be additives or sand, or whatever it might be––alternative materials to incumbent best practice. And the nice thing about that is, we can give you a neutral perspective. And since our equipment is big enough, it is representative of the industrial process." 

The metalcasting area will be partnering with the school’s computer science department, math, and physics departments to assist the foundry with analyzing data and making sense of all the things that they’ll be measuring, said Bryant. And as students come alongside the entire process, he says, they’ll have the necessary skills to facilitate data-informed and predictive casting in the commercial industry.

3D Printing at Penn State

The oldest industrial engineering department in the world, with roots dating to America’s post-Revolutionary War period, constructed a new building in 2020 to house its next-gen foundry lab. Currently, Penn State is about to finalize its proposal for a 3D printer with The Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation and its “America’s Cutting Edge” workforce development initiative that’s tied to the DOD. It will be an $750,000 investment.

Besides working closely with the agency, the school has, over the years, benefitted from the donations of industry partners who keep the new foundry lab equipped with the latest technologies.

“The heart and soul of this lab is embracing the new technologies that are becoming embedded in the metalcasting industry for the future,” said the school’s FEF key instructor, Bob Voigt. “And one of those is 3D sand printing. Our intention is to put research-capable equipment in a teaching lab.

“We have to compete for student interests,” he continued. “They see robots, they see 3D printers. We want them to understand that this technology is embedded in the metal casting industry and will continue to lead this industry and make it grow.”

Penn State’s foundry lab will become an Industry 4.0 test cell and will be capable of collecting data from linked pieces of equipment in the laboratory, said Voigt.

The contract with DOD goes deeper than equipment––workforce development that reaches into elementary through high school is a major emphasis, Voigt explained, and will also encompass training bootcamps for production employees. The vision expands into curriculum development in partnership with trade associations and the FEF that could be part of early workforce training and apprenticeships in the metalcasting industry.

“What we're being asked to do is really be the hub of activity that eventually goes out to the different FEF schools,” said Voigt. “This would be something that we could spread across the country from this starting-off point in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, back at the lab, he says Penn State is also going to add digital noncontact dimensional inspection technology and embrace the opportunities that new casting design technologies, such as topology optimization, bring to the metalcasting industry and metalcasting laboratory education now and into the future.

One of the best-kept secrets of the university’s foundry lab is its technical staff, according to Voigt.

“Many universities have had to abandon that technical support for laboratory instruction, but we have talented technical staff who support all this activity,” he said. “They're in those labs, working with our graduate students, working with the students as we pour metal. And they're the unsung heroes that make our university successful.

Missouri S&T Upgrades and Construction

For five years, Missouri S&T’s Robert V. Wolf Foundry has been undergoing modernization with over $2 million in equipment upgrades. The most recent additions in 2023 were a 3-ton-capacity foundry gantry crane valued at $166,500, as well as foundry audio visual equipment upgrades donation from Southern Cast Products. But the most substantial acquisitions have been its 3D sand printer (2020) from AFS Corporate Member Exone, worth nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, as well as a 500-lb. induction furnace (2018) and power supply from AFS Corporate Member Inductotherm, both of which were purchased for the school through a large cooperative agreement with the Army Research Lab.

“We do a lot of Department of Defense work on our campus, and we're one of their trusted institutions,” said Laura Bartlett, Wolf associate professor of metallurgical engineering and FEF key professor of metal casting technology in the Materials Science & Engineering department. “The reason they're providing us with this large equipment is because they want to be able to bridge the gap between laboratory scale and pilot scale to production scale quantities of materials. If I produce some small casting in my lab, it may or may not correlate to something like a track shoe that's going to go underneath a military vehicle––we need to be able to produce those large-scale prototype components. The Army wants us to be able to make different types of prototype castings, and they chose us because we have all the capabilities from design all the way to laboratory and now pilot scale processing.

“They're looking at being able to remake parts in the field at the point of need. So, we've been doing melting trials with them, trying to understand what that does to the integrity of the part.”

The five-year, $2-million upgrade has included: a Confocal ultra-high temperature microscope with tensile/compression (2022); a Grieve model HD-204830-HT furnace located at an offsite 5,000-sq-ft facility and intensive quench tank (2020); a Pacific Kiln model ESM-2218 slurry mixer donated by O’Fallon Foundry (2018); as well as two Creality Ender-3 S1 Plus 3d printers through an AFS student grant and FEF funds (2017).

The Wolf Foundry conducts a significant amount of research involving all different types of alloys, said Bartlett, but the majority has been with iron and steel. Over the last five years, she added, they’ve completed about $21 million in research. In 2023, Missouri S&T was awarded a new research project by AFS to investigate the effect of boron in ductile irons.

The school was in the news last fall with its groundbreaking on the new, 116,000-sq-ft Protoplex, which will serve as a hub for the network of companies S&T is building through partnerships with the Missouri Association of Manufacturers, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, and other universities, community colleges, and technical schools across the state. In addition to offering an opportunity for manufacturers to learn about new methods and technologies, the full-sized advanced manufacturing machines housed in the Protoplex will enable S&T students to be industry-ready. Construction will be completed in 2025.

“The Missouri Protoplex was designed to increase the economic footprint in rural areas like Rolla [where S&T resides] and increase the economics for the state of Missouri,” Bartlett said. “It will give industry access to advanced equipment that they might not have otherwise, such as a large-scale vacuum induction furnace and heat treat capabilities; it's going to have some additive manufacturing capabilities, wire arc manufacturing, and high-temperature ceramics.

“The idea is that industry can basically suggest what we need to put in this building. They will buy in and send an engineer to live here and work onsite with our students and professors in this facility, and have access to this equipment that they wouldn't ordinarily have. Caterpillar was one of the first companies to sign on,” she added. “They want a large vacuum induction furnace, so we're planning that right now with the architects and the engineers.”

Tennessee Tech’s Smart Foundry on the Drawing Board

Every great renovation begins with a great innovation that gradually progresses from vision to drawing board to reality. Tennessee Tech is way past the dreaming phase as it nears completion of plans for a brand-new, 80,000-sq-ft building that will house a smart foundry expected to be move-in ready in 2027.

Construction funding––where vision meets reality––has been secured by the state of Tennessee to the tune of $62.5 million, and that will just about put the shell of the building up on the campus map. But FEF Key Instructor Fred Vondra says the school’s leadership doesn’t seem worried about the possible shortfall, which may be made up through further state funding and industry partners.

The current state award came about thanks to the school knowing the value of what they had in their current foundry––and knowing where they wanted to go.

“We got a new dean, Joseph Slater, about four years ago,” Vondra began. “He called us all into a big room and he says, ‘There are colleges of engineering everywhere. What makes us unique?’ And I raised my hand and said, ‘We have a metalcasting program,’ and his eyes grew large right there in front of everybody. We're the only one in the state of Tennessee.

“About a year ago or so, we found out that the state was opening a solicitation for new buildings, and all the universities got to submit a proposal to the state, but they specifically wanted it to be for medical research, Vondra continued. “When our president, Dr. Oldham, asked our dean if he had a proposal ready that we could send to the state, he says, ‘As a matter of fact, I do,’ because I'd been working with him on the new foundry plan for a couple of years already.

“I got him the drawings that my class had designed last fall, and the director of our machine shop put everything together. In the end, it turned out we were ranked pretty far down on the list, but when the governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, who’s an engineer, looked at our proposal, he said, ‘No, this needs to be up here.’ That’s how impressed he was with the proposal we sent him.”

Vondra is the first to acknowledge a big part of his inspiration came from visiting Purdue, where this narrative began.

“I immediately left the building and got on my phone and called Brian Lewis [director at FEF],” he said. “And Brian got us connected with the folks at Sinto, and now we're working on Phase 1. We just had a meeting yesterday [just after Thanksgiving], so we're well on our way to a great relationship with them.”

The new foundry will comprise a range of equipment, including 3D sand printing, a new greensand system, high-pressure molding, hand molding area, modular sand transport bucket elevators, conveyors, sand storage, shakeout, plus a new Inductotherm power supply (currently owned) with coreless induction furnaces attached to it, compaction tables, as well as investment casting and lost foam cells. Real-time sensors and data collection will be in sharp focus for all the processes.

Post-processing equipment will include a bandsaw, grinding wheels, and sanding stations. Tensile testing, mechanical testing, and a metallurgy lab, plus CNC and manual machining, lathes, and mills will be located in the main building, as will a 3D printing lab, and fabrication and water jet spaces. An alum of the program designed, built, and custom painted a new hopper for the nobake system.

“I've always been the type of person who wants to leave things better than I found it,” said Vondra, who plans to retire as soon as the new smart foundry is created, and he doesn’t plan to teach in it. “When this new building is finished, I will have done that.”