small company in Rotterdam was developing a spin-off from university research:
a technique for making aluminium alloys that was superior in many ways
to conventional alloys. But how could it be exploited on an industrial
scale and what sort of products could it be used for? Two short years
of CRAFT support saw the production problem solved and the alloys appearing
in prototype automotive accessories, engines, ladders, sporting equipment,
camcorders and even dies for making Coca-Cola bottles. Now the company
is building a full scale production plant that will be the first of its
type in the world, ready to take on a market running into many hundreds
of millions of euro.
flourish in small companies, everyone agrees, but how can a small company
surmount the final hurdle of turning its idea into a product that will
such company is RSP
Products, which was set up in 1993 to exploit the technique
of 'melt-spinning' developed by the Technical
University of Delft. Molten aluminium alloy at around 800°C
is poured in a narrow stream onto a water-cooled copper wheel. The
aluminium solidifies almost instantly and as the wheel spins it
throws off a thin ribbon of metal which is then chopped up into
flakes. Because of the rapid cooling, the crystals in the metal
are very small, and this gives it a smooth and uniform structure.
It is known as rapidly solidified aluminium, or RSA.
on RSA had been going on in Delft since the late 1970s, originally
as a way of recycling automotive scrap," explains Dr Fred Dom
of RSP Products. "But it turned out that you can also use this
technology for making very interesting alloys for high-tech applications."
Given a suitable choice of ingredients, RSA alloys can be made stronger,
more ductile, smoother and harder wearing than conventional aluminium
alloys. They also have better electrical, thermal and machining
properties. So why was not everyone using them?
flakes into billets
problem was getting the RSA into a form that industry could use.
What was needed was some way of compacting the flakes into a billet,
a dense bar about half a metre long and up to 25 centimetres in
diameter. "Once you have a billet you can go to the aluminium
extrusion companies who have very big and powerful presses,"
Dr Dom explains. "They can press these billets into profiles
like a tube or a rectangular shape or whatever you like. We realised
that we had to do some research and development to get the flakes
into a billet."
second concern was that RSA was not an end product. "You need
products and applications and we saw that our potential customers
are located throughout Europe and indeed the world," says Dr
Dom. "So the best way to develop things was in co-operation
with potential end users."
Dom assembled a group of firms making aluminium products and together
they made a CRAFT
proposal. The objectives were to find out how to make billets and
how to use those billets to make products.
towbars and pistons
work on compaction was carried out by the technical universities
of Delft and Eindhoven.
Van Megen Metaalconstructies built the engineering prototypes.
With RSA available as billets, Dutch company Wienese Klimmaterialen
used it to make improved ladders for fire fighting. Transfer Trade
Belgium exploited the stiffness and strength of RSA to make camcorder
made detachable towbars for cars. German engineers Heggemann
made RSA pistons and connecting rods for go-kart engines. DMM
Engineering in Wales used RSA alloys in lightweight mountaineering
Metaalbewerking made high-pressure dies for forming plastic products.
"The dies are made of aluminium and as we have a very fine
microstructure we are able to polish our aluminium alloys into very
smooth surfaces and that's important for dies," Dr Dom continues.
"So they did some tests with dies for Coca-Cola bottles and
achieved good results."
encouraging were the early trials that RSP Products is now scaling
up its production. A new plant near Groningen is expected to be
operational by the end of the year. "This is definitely an
important spin-off from this CRAFT project," Dr Dom says. "We
saw that there is a big potential in terms of applications and markets,
but you need to have quite a big production facility to be able
to supply these customers."
market for lightweight, strong alloys
forecasts that the first commercial successes will be in the market
for pistons. They are working with Heggemann to develop diesel engine
pistons which have a potential market running into many hundreds
of millions of euro. Other products will take more time to reach
the market, but there are numerous specialist applications for lightweight,
are so many possibilities with this technology," he says. "We
are now focusing on aluminium alloys but in the future we could
also go for special copper, zinc or magnesium alloys. It's really
a huge, huge market."
The other CRAFT partners will also benefit, in that RSP has agreed
for a limited period not to supply alloys to their direct competitors.
the time being, Dr Dom's company has the market to itself. "Some
US companies did meltspinning in the past, but they all gave up
because the market was not ready and they were not able to manufacture
products on a large scale," he explains. "We have developed
this process so you can produce it in a three-shift operation, 24
hours a day, and that is what other companies have not achieved.""
funding played a very important role in getting closer to the market,
Dr Dom stresses. "CRAFT was one of the last steps we had
to take to turn our technology into a success, and if you're not
able to make that last step you've lost everything," he says.
When you develop a new material it is very difficult to turn it
into products and you need assistance from universities. A CRAFT
project is a great way to do it."