Die casting is a versatile process for producing engineered metal parts by forcing molten metal under high pressure into reusable steel molds. These molds, called dies, can be designed to produce complex shapes with a high degree of accuracy and repeatability. Parts can be sharply defined, with smooth or textured surfaces, and are suitable for a wide variety of attractive and serviceable finishes.
Die castings are among the highest volume, mass-produced items manufactured by the metalworking industry, and they can be found in thousands of consumer, commercial and industrial products. Die cast parts are important components of products ranging from automobiles to toys. Parts can be as simple as a sink faucet or as complex as a connector housing.
Die cast parts are found in many places around the home. The polished, plated zinc die casting in this kitchen faucet illustrates one of the many finishes possible with die casting.
These connector housings are examples of the durable, highly accurate components that can be produced with today’s modern die casting.
The earliest examples of die casting by pressure injection - as opposed to casting by gravity pressure - occurred in the mid-1800s. A patent was awarded to Sturges in 1849 for the first manually operated machine for casting printing type. The process was limited to printer’s type for the next 20 years, but development of other shapes began to increase toward the end of the century. By 1892, commercial applications included parts for phonographs and cash registers, and mass production of many types of parts began in the early 1900s.
The first die casting alloys were various compositions of tin and lead, but their use declined with the introduction of zinc and aluminum alloys in 1914. Magnesium and copper alloys quickly followed, and by the 1930s, many of the modern alloys still in use today became available.
The die casting process has evolved from the original low-pressure injection method to techniques including high-pressure casting — at forces exceeding 4500 pounds per square inch — squeeze casting and semi-solid die casting. These modern processes are capable of producing high integrity, near net-shape castings with excellent surface finishes.
Die casting is an efficient, economical process offering a broader range of shapes and components than any other manufacturing technique. Parts have long service life and may be designed to complement the visual appeal of the surrounding part. Designers can gain a number of advantages and benefits by specifying die cast parts.
High-speed production - Die casting provides complex shapes within closer tolerances than many other mass production processes. Little or no machining is required and thousands of identical castings can be produced before additional tooling is required.
Dimensional accuracy and stability - Die casting produces parts that are durable and dimensionally stable, while maintaining close tolerances. They are also heat resistant.
Strength and weight - Die cast parts are stronger than plastic injection moldings having the same dimensions. Thin wall castings are stronger and lighter than those possible with other casting methods. Plus, because die castings do not consist of separate parts welded or fastened together, the strength is that of the alloy rather than the joining process.
Multiple finishing techniques - Die cast parts can be produced with smooth or textured surfaces, and they are easily plated or finished with a minimum of surface preparation.
Simplified Assembly - Die castings provide integral fastening elements, such as bosses and studs. Holes can be cored and made to tap drill sizes, or external threads can be cast.
Dies, or die casting tooling, are made of alloy tool steels in at least two sections, the fixed die half, or cover half, and the ejector die half, to permit removal of castings. Modern dies also may have moveable slides, cores or other sections to produce holes, threads and other desired shapes in the casting. Sprue holes in the fixed die half allow molten metal to enter the die and fill the cavity. The ejector half usually contains the runners (passageways) and gates (inlets) that route molten metal to the cavity. Dies also include locking pins to secure the two halves, ejector pins to help remove the cast part, and openings for coolant and lubricant.
When the die casting machine closes, the two die halves are locked and held together by the machine’s hydraulic pressure. The surface where the ejector and fixed halves of the die meet and lock is referred to as the "die parting line." The total projected surface area of the part being cast, measured at the die parting line, and the pressure required of the machine to inject metal into the die cavity governs the clamping force of the machine.
There are four types of dies:
1. Single cavity to produce one component
2. Multiple cavity to produce a number of identical parts
3. Unit die to produce different parts at one time
4. Combination die to produce several different parts for an assembly
Hot chamber machines are used primarily for zinc, copper, magnesium, lead and other low melting point alloys that do not readily attack and erode metal pots, cylinders and plungers. The injection mechanism of a hot chamber machine is immersed in the molten metal bath of a metal holding furnace. The furnace is attached to the machine by a metal feed system called a gooseneck. As the injection cylinder plunger rises, a port in the injection cylinder opens, allowing molten metal to fill the cylinder. As the plunger moves downward it seals the port and forces molten metal through the gooseneck and nozzle into the die cavity. After the metal has solidified in the die cavity, the plunger is withdrawn, the die opens and the casting is ejected.
Cold chamber machines are used for alloys such as aluminum and other alloys with high melting points. The molten metal is poured into a "cold chamber," or cylindrical sleeve, manually by a hand ladle or by an automatic ladle. A hydraulically operated plunger seals the cold chamber port and forces metal into the locked die at high pressures.