By Mark Shortt

One company is known for molding complex, engineering-grade thermoplastic materials. Another has carved a niche in multi-axis machining complex parts in titanium, Inconel, and other exotic materials. A third is an established injection molder of advanced ceramic parts. What do these three job shops—ASH Industries™, L&R Precision Tooling, Inc., and Ceramco, Inc., respectively—all have in common?

All three are parts manufacturers that regularly produce high-performance parts—many of them made using advanced materials—that are capable of withstanding rigorous, and often harsh, application environments. The companies responded to a recent Design-2-Part questionnaire about materials innovations and the use of advanced materials in parts manufacturing.

ASH Industries (https://www.ashindustries.com/), in business since 1991 and located in Lafayette, Louisiana, is known for its thermoplastic injection molding and metal injection molding (MIM) expertise, as well as liquid injection molding (LIM) and rotational molding. The company molds complex, engineering grade material, including PEEK, liquid crystal polymer, Ultem, and other high-end, high performance medical- and industrial-grade plastics. ASH also manufactures stainless steel parts for small medical devices, siting systems for advanced weapons, and small components for handgun actions.

In a written response to the D2P survey, Hartie Spence, president of ASH Industries, said that metal injection molding (MIM) components have the advantage of performing similarly to cast metal materials, but without the secondary operations. They can also save substantial handling and additional machining costs, he added.

As for thermoplastic materials, properties have advanced to the point where some materials can “live” at 320 degrees F perpetually, he said, or exhibit tensile strengths of 40,000 psi. Others show little to no shrinkage. Spence said that in some cases, ASH has been able to apply the use of thermoplastics in areas that were traditionally dominated by higher cost metals.

“We have used these materials (thermoplastics) to replace structural steel or aluminum in highly corrosive environments to meet ‘no spark’ requirements, or even to reduce weight in complex systems,” he wrote.

L&R Precision Tooling Inc., an AS9100 D and ISO 9001:2015 certified machine job shop in Lynchburg, Virginia, performs 7- , 5- , and 4-axis machining of exotic materials, including titanium, Inconel, and Super Duplex. The company also machines waveguide blocks, which are later gold plated, and plastics such as acrylics, G10, Teflon, and Delrin.

L&R Precision Tooling  (http://www.lrprecisiontooling.com/) has produced parts like titanium base plates for submarine antenna systems, Inconel housings used in deep oil well drilling, and complex, tight-tolerance parts for NASA. The company has also machined parts for use in surgical, night vision, fiber optic, nuclear plant inspection, and filtration products.

“The baseplates receive anodizing after machining as well, and it’s a light weight alloy, able   to withstand virtually any external damage from heat, chemical, environmental, industrial or corrosive contaminants,” wrote Chris Coffey, vice president of business development for L& R Precision Tooling, in a response to the survey. “The material is perfect for many fabricated sub-assemblies that require low weight, high strength and long service life.”

Ceramco, Inc. (http://www.ceramcoceramics.com/), of Center Conway, New Hampshire, has particular expertise in injection molding of advanced ceramics, including such materials as alumina, zirconia, silicon nitride, aluminum nitride, and fused silica. Thomas Henriksen, president of Ceramco, said that ceramics can be used where plastics and metals fail to perform in an application. Beneficial characteristics of the materials include high service temperature, excellent wear properties, and high resistance to corrosion. They also offer electrical resistance, high hardness, high toughness, biocompatibility, and chemical inertness.

“We made a ceramic that looks and performs like graphite, but it is lower cost and more durable,” Henriksen wrote. “We have ceramic fasteners which are used in critical applications where traditional fasteners do not perform.”

Henriksen added that additive manufacturing of ceramics has given customers access to advanced ceramics, with short lead times and no tooling required. In the future, he’d like to see additional ceramic materials become available for additive manufacturing.  Other areas of R&D that he believes hold promise for manufacturers include micro-scale ceramic parts and improved precision in the net shaping of ceramics.

ASH’s Spence, meanwhile, believes that current research in the area of high-strength memory thermoplastic materials looks promising. He’d also like to see the development of MIM materials in aluminum, brass, and copper.

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