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Embracing magnesium: despite the inherent advantages of magnesium, prevailing factors are holding the material back from becoming a major player in the domestic metalcasting industry.

Gerald Cole can sell magnesium. He can't literally sell it; in fact, only one company in the U.S. sells primary magnesium. But he can push its virtues like no one else.

Cole is president of consulting firm LightWeightStrategies LLC, Franklin, Mich. As the name of the company suggests, LightWeightStrategies offers its customers solutions to engineering problems through light weight materials, including aluminum, some cast iron and, of course, magnesium.

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"The advantage of magnesium is that it's light," Cole said. "If you can cast it, and cast it thin, taking ad vantage of the fact it has low specific heat, you can reduce the weight of your design significantly."

Since his retirement in 2001 after a 38-year career as a senior staff technical specialist with Ford Motor Co., Cole's work through his consulting firm has largely focused on magnesium. He was a senior technical advisor to the Australian Magnesium Corp., and he has consulted on magnesium for Henkel, Dusseldorf, Germany, and prepared business studies for several magnesium diecasters. He currently consults for a Chinese aluminum and magnesium casting company. Cole also has been intimately involved in the creation of a long-term roadmap for the success of magnesium in the automotive industry and won an award for a monograph he wrote on the subject in 2006 entitled Magnesium Vision 2020.

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But despite Cole's--and others'-best efforts, conversations with industry experts indicate that the growth of magnesium has not been as great as many analysts once predicted. According to the latest data from industry forecaster Stratecasts, Fort Myers, Fla., North American magnesium casting shipments for motor vehicles grew 37% from 2004 to 2005 but dropped to a 4% uptick from 2005 to 2006 (Table 1). And today, compounded by the dramatic decline in North American automotive production, magnesium casting shipments are forecast to fall in almost all major markets in the short term (Table 2).

According to several magnesium experts, two primary obstacles contribute to this lagging growth in the use of magnesium in domestic metalcasting production. Both are related to a dearth of magnesium production within the U.S. First, the cost of primary magnesium is greater in the U.S. than in many competing countries. Second, a lack of magnesium engineering expertise exists due to the shortage of domestic production.

"Magnesium's penetration into new markets is a two-headed monster," said Rob Bailey, president of B.S. Metallurgy Inc., Manitowoc, Wis. "It is an immature material regarding our design engineers' knowledge base, and it's an economic challenge due to a raw material cost imbalance and learning curve costs for new casting infrastructure."

The Cost Imbalance

Greg Patzer, executive vice president of the International Magnesium Association, Wauconda, Ill., says that if you want to know what's going on with magnesium in the U.S., simply follow the money.

"The growth of magnesium use at this juncture is not a matter of process but cost," he said.

When considering the cost of magnesium, most experts in the field compare the material to aluminum. In many cases, particularly automotive applications, magnesium components take the place of aluminum parts. But due to basic principles of economics, magnesium is considerably more expensive than aluminum.

First, the supply of available magnesium is lower than that of aluminum, making its base price greater. Second, the majority of the world's primary magnesium is produced in China; that single country makes about 85% of the usable material across the globe. Only U.S. Magnesium, Salt Lake City, Utah, produces primary magnesium domestically. (The company did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)

"In January of 2008, there was a 10% export tax assigned to our raw materials from China, where as recently as 2006 there was a 13% export rebate for Chinese producers to send our magnesium alloy raw materials to foreign customers," Bailey said. "That's a 23% swing in the favor of Chinese diecasters versus North American or European diecasters." Bailey adds that all that is before an anti-dumping duty (a tax levied on goods imported from countries said to be unloading their product on foreign markets at a reduced price) of 100% or more is applied to the raw material purchased by U.S. consumers.

But according to Cole, that makes magnesium sound less competitive than it in fact is, particularly in non-automotive applications. The factors that go into the total piece price of a magnesium casting are many, and in some cases, the final cost is comparable.

"The cost comparison has to be done almost every month--at what price of raw magnesium does a magnesium casting compare to aluminum?" Cole asked. "It takes less energy to melt it, the density is less, it takes less metal to fill up a shape, and the machining is easier."

There are more variables in the equation, Cole says, but some of them become difficult to measure. Aluminum and magnesium have differing amounts of dross when melted, putting together assemblies with the materials presents different challenges, and the tools used to cast the materials have varying service lives due to the different melting and pouring temperatures involved. In the end, according to one analysis performed by Cole and others, the break even point for the raw material cost of magnesium is 1.9 times that of aluminum. If it's lower than that, the magnesium component should be the more economical; if it's greater, it may not be, depending on the value placed on light-weighting by the engineer.

For magnesium sand casters like Chicago Magnesium Casting Co., Blue Island, Ill., this breakeven point can be different than it is for automotive magnesium casters, as designers in the target markets (primarily aerospace and military) tend to be more willing to pay for the advantages of magnesium. However, even for Chicago Magnesium, the breakeven point has changed recently.

"The price has gone up considerably in the last year," said Richard Burnett, the company's president. "It doesn't help the industry at all."

Bailey points out that the magnesium industry is not alone in this international trade war. He says that anytime there is one significant international producer of a desirable commodity, the producer can artificially drive up the cost of the metal and offer low cost samples until the competition has been forced out of business, and once the major players control the market, they can raise their prices on their finished goods.

The Engineer's Knowledge Base

The second obstacle for magnesium growth is similar to a job applicant's dilemma--you don't have enough experience for the job you want, but you need the job to get the experience. Only a handful of metalcasters in the U.S. are casting magnesium, and engineering support from magnesium supply companies and end-users is limited.

"While magnesium is being successfully used in many applications, and its substitution for aluminum in many components is interchangeable, you must also consider for some applications approaches for special fasteners and coatings to avoid corrosion and also special alloys for elevated service temperatures and creep resistance," said Tom Prucha, vice president of technical services at the American Foundry Society (AFS). "This is where experience and interface with the designer and casting user is required to overcome barriers for its use."

The end-use applications for magnesium castings can be divided into two camps--automotive and non-automotive. The automotive market is at this time the larger of the two, and the metalcasting process used for almost 100% of those applications is diecasting.

According to Craig Conaty, chief operating officer of Compass Automotive, Franklin, Ind., his company has succeeded in recent years largely because of its success in the niche market of lightweight die castings in materials like magnesium. But the small size of that niche and success of a few companies do not contribute to the success of many.

"The big problem is that the automotive engineering has been outsourced," Cole said. "[With] the lack of a supply base, there are very few companies with any engineering competency, and as the automotive industry skinnies down, they lose engineering. There's not a single tier one magnesium supplier in the U.S."

In addition to the design support needed for the advancement of magnesium use in automotive applications, Cole said that the infrastructure must be in place to test and demonstrate the capabilities of finished product. Neither exists in the States. "Most of the magnesium development has been in Europe," he said.

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A number of metalcasting industry researchers also have begun working on making the metal castable in other processes on a production basis. In particular, a considerable amount of work has been done to develop non-diecasting processes and new alloys that bridge the gap between high property, high cost aerospace sand casting alloys and low property, commodity-priced diecasting alloys. Currently, these new processes and alloys have not been used in production, but test castings have shown promise.

"The diecasting industry has more direct competition from low-tech magnesium offshore producers," Bailey said. "We're working to develop non-diecasting opportunities, because we think for magnesium to be truly embraced by the automotive field, we have to have databases that show it is more than a one-process material."

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Magnesium also is being cast with success in sand casting processes for some non-automotive applications, particularly the aerospace, military, electronics and sporting equipment markets. However, the number of metalcasters making these parts is small, and the technology sharing among them, as well as from many magnesium suppliers and buyers, is limited.

"The non-diecasters have little help," Bailey said. "So few magnesium [metalcasters] are left that the current aerospace sand [facilities] want small volume and high profit parts, and there's no reason for them to teach others or compete."

Bailey said that furthermore, the industry's technical resources have to operate independently of the major manufacturers. The metalcasters are sufficient on their own and are uninterested in funding future work; therefore, for the industry to continue its testing, it is forced to secure a commercial buy-in before things can go forward.

The Outlook

Cole believes that magnesium casting production in this country is currently mired in a "perfect storm." Like so many things, the current slumping economic climate is part of the problem.

"Magnesium is not being produced in the States, so it's more expensive and there's no engineering," he said. "The cost being higher means finished casting cost is higher, the volume of magnesium that would have gone into automotive applications is less because of the automotive collapse, and Japanese automakers that are growing are not using as much magnesium as the Americans. All of that has caused diecasters to go out of business, so the diecasters that would have been around to help with the engineering are gone."

On top of that, Bailey sees a situation that reads something like a spy novel: Because of the international trade issues surrounding the primary and secondary production of magnesium, everyone is keeping their mouths shut about what they know in order to keep their competitors from stealing their intellectual property.

Meanwhile, competing industries continue to do process research in order to make magnesium producible in forging, sheet fabrication, extrusion and other methods.

Nevertheless, Cole doesn't plan on giving up anytime soon. In addition to the book he published in 2006, he's now working with AFS to market the potential uses of the material and present key information for the design engineer. The perfect storm, he believes, will eventually pass.

And Bailey agrees that certain conditions are in place that could lead to an increase in magnesium casting use in the near future. The changing international exchange rate is one of those--as the value of the dollar declines with respect to other countries, it could become more economical to source magnesium castigns stateside. And the current state of end-users' inventories in another.

"Every manufacturing tier is at historic lows of inventory," Bailey said. "So we can estimate that with any increase in automotive orders, we will see a corresponding increase in orders for magnesium castings. The long suffering of 2009 may hopefully be a distant memory."

Advantages of Magnesium

* Low density

* Low heat capacity

* Low solubility for iron

* Excellent fluidity

* High electromagnetic interference shielding

For More Information

"Charting a Course for Magnesium," J. Hryn, K. Jereza, R. Brindle, G. Williams, J. Chappell and the AFS Magnesium Div., MODERN CASTING, October 2005, p. 39-43.

Visit the International Magnesium Association online at www.intlmag.org.

Shea Gibbs, Senior Editor
Table 1. Long-Term Forecast of Magnesium
Casting Shipments for Motor Vehicles (tons)

Year Casting Shipments

2003 52,000
2004 57,000
2005 78,000
2006 81,000
2007 83,000
2008 84,000
2009 60,000
2010 62,000
2011 66,000
2012 72,000
2013 80,000
2014 85,000
2015 90,000
2016 96,000
2017 100,000
2018 110,000
2019 115,000

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Table 2. Short-Term Forecast of Magnesium Casting Shipments (tons)

 NAICS Code 2007 2008 2009 2010

Engine Parts 1,500 1,500 1,000 1,000
Power Tools 13,000 12,000 9,000 9,000
Special Industry Machinery 1,000 1,000 1,000 1,000
Computer/Office Machinery 1,700 2,000 1,000 1,000
Electronics Parts 1,000 1,000 1,000 1,000
Motor Vehicles 83,000 84,000 60,000 62,000
Medical, Dental 1,000 1,000 1,000 1,000
Sporting Goods & Toys 12,000 12,000 8,000 8,000
Other 6,800 6,500 5,000 5,000

TOTAL 121,000 121,000 87,000 89,000
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Author:Gibbs, Shea
Publication:Modern Casting
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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