ACE–DC casting & Nissan UK: Accelerating foundry R&D
The development of improved materials and casting techniques is a key topic in the creation of lighter, stronger and more efficient internal combustion engines. The ACE-DC (Alliance Casting Europe Development Centre) project was led by Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK (NMUK) to expand its R&D capabilities and enhance its competitiveness among the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance.
One of the main aims of the project was to establish a new prototype line built to the Alliance Standard Line (ASL) template. This would allow products and technologies developed at the UK site to be suitable for application at any of the Alliance’s global ASL casting facilities, strengthening its position within the group.
Supported by the collaborative research and development (CR&D) competition APC5 from the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC), the ACE-DC project would also bring onboard a series of technical partners to develop specific casting techniques and materials.
Brunel University provided research capabilities and expertise on melt conditioning and liquid metal engineering. As part of the project, NMUK was able to carry out trials on a niobium-based grain refiner developed by researchers at Brunel, producing prototype parts on the ASL line and taking the technology a step closer to full production readiness.
“One of the benefits we were pleasantly surprised about was the value of the partnerships that we would establish through the APC project,” explains Craig Jennings, Powertrain Engineering Manager at NMUK. “We’d worked with some of the partners in the consortium before, but Brunel were completely new to us, and they’ve brought some new technologies that we hadn’t seen before.”
Huttenes Albertus UK, a specialist in foundry chemistry, is one of the partners that had worked with NMUK on previous projects. The firm introduced inorganic binders for the sand cores used in the casting process. This can help to improve the process and reduce the maintenance requirements of the dies.
The manufacturing execution system (MES) software for the pilot line was provided by Lighthouse Systems. This has improved quality control and production monitoring, slashing the time typically taken to analyse an anomaly from weeks to just hours. Following on from this success on the ASL line, a series of spin-off projects with Lighthouse have since been applied to the plant’s primary manufacturing line.
Meanwhile, Zero Carbon Futures, now a subsidiary of Newcastle University, provided project management and training, including the implementation of a new casting module for apprentices at Gateshead College. An additional unfunded partner in the project, Beta Technology Limited, supported the industrialisation and commercialisation of the technology.
Looking back on the project, Jennings says the APC played a key part in developing the plant’s new capabilities:
“Getting APC support was definitely a turning point as it allowed us to proceed with the project. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to deliver these technologies. Crucially, it gave us the capability to carry out production representative R&D work without disrupting our manufacturing activities.”
The inorganic binders developed with Huttenes Albertus are a good example of how the project has helped to fast-track new technologies towards series production – typically around two years before Jennings estimates that they would otherwise have been implemented.
“Perhaps most importantly, many of the outputs of the project have since been adopted into serial life production. The enhanced capabilities delivered by the project have resulted in an increased manufacturing efficiency and product quality from the facility.”