For two days in mid-January, Liquidmetal was the centre of attention at the Engel Deutschland Technologieforum in Stuttgart, Germany. At an exclusive event, the Austrian injection moulding machine manufacturer Engel, together with its system partners Liquidmetal Technologies and Materion Corporation, presented the potential of their technology developments to more than 200 customers and interested visitors.
Guests accepted the invitation from Engel to visit the Liquidmetal Forum at its subsidiary in southwestern Germany. “The number of registrations far exceeded our expectations,” stated Claus Wilde, Managing Director at Engel Deutschland and head of the Technologieforum Stuttgart, who opened the event. The forum, which was originally planned to last just one day, was prolonged to last two days because of the unexpectedly high number of registrations. Guests came not only from the territory served by the subsidiary but from all regions of Germany, as well as from Austria, Switzerland, France, Great Britain and Sweden. It was reported that besides plastics processors, many metal processors also took the opportunity to get to know the new technology.
Liquidmetal Technologies, based in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, USA, has developed a group of zirconium-based alloys that can be ‘liquid metal injection moulded’. As Liquidmetal’s exclusive engineering partner, Engel is the only supplier in the world offering machinery and system solutions for the injection moulding of these materials. A third partner is Materion Corporation, the material producer and distributor based in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, USA. During the event, the three partners jointly presented the new materials, injection moulding for processing them efficiently and the potential they have for applications.
“Thanks to their amorphous, non-crystalline structure, components made of Liquidmetal are extremely hard, but at the same time very elastic, which leads to very good recovery behaviour,” stated Steffen Mack, Business Development Manager at Materion. “They have low specific weight, are corrosion-resistant and biocompatible.” The fact that the alloys can be processed by injection moulding is a further advantage compared to other metal materials, because this makes particularly efficient, highly automated and integrated processing methods possible. In only one step, injection moulding delivers fit-for-purpose components with very high quality surfaces.
“These characteristics are fascinating for anyone who works with plastics or metals,” stated Heinz Rasinger, Vice President Engel teletronics. “Now it is all about the question of how we can make the best possible use of these characteristics. We have discussed some very concrete ideas together with the participants at our forum. The results have shown that it will be less a question of substituting the material in existing products, but much rather how we can design components in a way that can take full advantage of the potential of the material. What we experienced during these two days is an almost euphoric optimism, comparable with the emergence of thermoplastics.”
A panel of experts gave conference participants the opportunity to discuss their product ideas and questions in a small, confidential circle of experts from Engel, Liquidmetal Technologies and Materion. Some companies brought sample components and CAD drawings for this purpose. “For some products, the discussions led to some very promising approaches,” stated Rasinger. “We will be starting the first projects shortly.”
The panel of experts confirmed once again that there will be a broad field of applications, from medical technology to electronics, automotive to aerospace and even sports equipment. “Liquidmetal offers great potential in particular for components subject to strong mechanical strain with high demands on component design and surface quality,” emphasised Christoph Lhota, Vice President Engel medical, giving as an example the long and sometimes very delicate instruments for keyhole surgery. Further application examples that were discussed in Stuttgart include functional components for electrical devices and decorative elements for automotive interiors.
In a recent technology development, combining Liquidmetal with other metals or plastics in a multi-component process has been investigated. “At our technology centre in California we have already fabricated sample multi-component parts with Liquidmetal and another metal,” stated Thomas Steipp, CEO at Liquidmetal Technologies.
In 2014 Liquidmetal began installing capacity for contract manufacturing. It now has its ISO 9001:2008 certification and is manufacturing parts for customers. “It is not necessary for those who would like to get started with the new technology to first invest in a manufacturing cell of their own,” stated Steipp. “We are prepared to supply prototype and production parts now from our Manufacturing Center of Excellence in California. Additionally, it is our goal to also establish contract manufacturing capacities in Europe.” All that is needed for getting started is a licence that is conferred by Liquidmetal Technologies. Apple and Swatch are already among the first licensees.
The article “Liquidmetal® and MIM: Two complementary metal forming technologies” was published in the September 2014 issue of PIM International, available to download free of charge.