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Patternless casting is ideal for prototyping

Working with German robotic integrator Mühlbauer Maschinenbau and automotive manufacturer Audi, Simtech Systems has further developed its revolutionary patternless casting technology. The resulting system is perfect for prototyping work, and was used exclusively in developing the prototype for Audi’s new A5.
Simtech Systems Inc. Oy

Simtech System’s patternless casting technique was originally conceived at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, before being spun off as an independent business.

The company’s two key software packages – ConiferCast®, a casting process simulation software used in metal casting, and ConiferRob®, which is designed to increase the efficiency of industrial robots by automatically optimising machining paths – offer major benefits compared to conventional techniques.

Simtech’s patternless casting technology allows developers to completely by-pass one of the main stages in traditional casting: the making of casting patterns. The advantages of this approach are best appreciated when several prototypes are required for a short production run, or when products vary slightly in detail.

The technology achieves this by using a robot to prepare a mould directly from a CAD model, or from an existing spare part or artist’s model. Using the relevant control data, the operator directs the robot to machine the shape into a mould made of hardened sand, which is then cast in the normal way.

Simtech Systems’ ConiferRob® software converts machining paths into a robot program and optimises it for accuracy and reachability.

When the test casting is satisfactory, the same robot can be used for making the casting tools needed for mass production.

Very real savings

Using Simtech’s technique, prototypes and products can be cast quickly from the most appropriate materials and submitted to designers for approval and subsequent testing.

This can trim up to two months off the time normally required for design and manufacture, and cut the development costs of cast products by anything from 10% to 40%. Savings like this can be very valuable on today’s highly competitive market.

Laboratory trials designed to compare the benefits of patternless casting against those of conventional casting – when producing cast components for a prototype hydraulic hammer – have shown that the total cost of bringing prototypes to market and the time required can be around two-thirds less using Simtech technology.

ConiferRob® is critical here, as it converts machining paths obtained from CAD systems directly into a robot program and optimises robot performance for accuracy and minimum wear. It also controls the positioning of the work piece in the robot cell, and ensures operational safety using visual inspection and automatic collision detection.

Safer too

The benefits of Simtech’s technology are not limited to time and money, however. As it imposes no restrictions on the shape of objects to be cast in the way that conventional techniques do, engineers can take advantage of a multitude of new design opportunities. Customers can also test their product prototypes much more freely.

A new sand machining-specific spindle developed by Mühlbauer Maschinenbau can be seen here.

The technology can also be applied to other areas of manufacturing that work with complicated shapes and extreme dimensions in materials other than metal, such as plastic injection moulding.

Occupational safety is also improved, as mould production takes place in a closed robot cell, which prevents the migration of potentially hazardous particles into employees’ respiratory tracts and dust into ambient foundry air.

Helping create the Audi A5

In one of its most recent projects, Simtech has worked with Mühlbauer Maschinenbau, a German robotic integrator, and automotive manufacturer Audi to further develop its technology for automotive needs.

As part of this, Mühlbauer Maschinenbau has developed a range of new spindles designed for machining in sand, as commercial spindles are unsuitable for this type of work; while Audi has developed new sand machining-specific tools. Some of these innovations have already been patented.

The result of this work can be seen in the sleek lines and eye-catching design of the new Audi A5, which was prototyped exclusively with the help of Simtech’s technology.

Audi’s new A5 was completely prototyped using ConiferRob® software. Photo courtesy of Audi AG.

Precision control

Simtech Systems’ ConiferRob® precision software fills the process gap between machining path generation systems, such as CAD systems, and industrial robots running machining programs.

ConiferRob® can convert and move a machining program in *.apt format into a robot for execution both quickly and safely.

In addition to optimum accuracy, the positioning of work pieces can also be easily designed and reviewed with the help of ConiferRob® – as its reachability analysis options allow potential positioning problems to be identified and ensure that the final positioning selected will work in practice.

Manual corrections to the machining path can also be made, while the software’s animation and collision detection features help check a program for safety before execution.

> Matti Sirviö
(Published in HighTech Finland 2008)