Investment casting is an industrial process based on lost-wax casting, one of the oldest known metal-forming techniques. The term "lost-wax casting" can also refer to modern investment casting processes.
Investment casting has been used in various forms for the last 5,000 years. In its earliest forms, beeswax was used to form patterns necessary for the casting process. Today, more advanced waxes, refractory materials and specialist alloys are typically used for making patterns. Investment casting is valued for its ability to produce components with accuracy, repeatability, versatility and integrity in a variety of metals and high-performance alloys.
The fragile wax patterns must withstand forces encountered during the mold making. Much of the wax used in investment casting can be reclaimed and reused. Lost-foam casting is a modern form of investment casting that eliminates certain steps in the process.
Investment casting derives its name from the pattern being invested (surrounded) with a refractory material. Many materials are suitable for investment casting; examples are stainless steel alloys, brass, aluminium, carbon steel and glass. The material is poured into a cavity in a refractory material that is an exact duplicate of the desired part. Due to the hardness of refractory materials used, investment casting can produce products with exceptional surface qualities, which can reduce the need for secondary machine processes.
Water glass and silica sol investment casting are the two primary investment casting methods nowadays. The main differences are the surface roughness and cost of casting. Water glass method dewaxes into the high-temperature water, and the ceramic mold is made of water glass quartz sand. Silica sol method dewaxes into the flash fire, and silica sol zircon sand makes the ceramic mold. Silica sol method costs more but has the better surface than the water glass method.
The process can be used for both small castings of a few ounces and large castings weighing several hundred pounds. It can be more expensive than die casting or sand casting, but per-unit costs decrease with large volumes. Investment casting can produce complicated shapes that would be difficult or impossible with other casting methods. It can also produce products with exceptional surface qualities and low tolerances with minimal surface finishing or machining required.
Castings can be made from an original wax model (the direct method) or from wax replicas of an original pattern that need not be made from wax (the indirect method). The following steps describe the indirect process, which can take two to seven days to complete.
Excellent surface finish
High dimensional accuracy
Extremely intricate parts are castable
Almost any metal can be cast
No flash or parting lines
Investment casting is used in the aerospace and power generation industries to produce turbine blades with complex shapes or cooling systems. Blades produced by investment casting can include single-crystal (SX), directionally solidified (DS), or conventional equiaxed blades.
Investment casting is also widely used by firearms manufacturers to fabricate firearm receivers, triggers, hammers, and other precision parts at low cost.
Karsten Solheim famously revolutionized golf club design through his company PING by incorporating investment casting for the first time for clubheads. Quickly the process became an industry standard to allow weight distribution around the perimeter of the clubhead.
Other industries that use standard investment-cast parts include military, medical, commercial and automotive.
With the increased availability of higher-resolution 3D printers, 3D printing has begun to be used to make much larger sacrificial molds used in investment casting. Planetary Resources has used the technique to print the mold for a new small satellite, which is then dipped in ceramic to form the investment cast for a titanium space bus with integral propellant tank and embedded cable routing.
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