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Revisiting Metalcasting’s Fascinating History

Doug Kurkul

Whether you are new to your role as a specifier, designer or buyer of metal castings, or have been in your position for many years, we thought you might appreciate a brief summary of the history of the foundry industry. Metalcasting is a modern industry with ancient roots, as we’ll explore in this column.

The earliest known castings date back several thousand years to ancient Mesopotamia and China. In casting, molten metal is poured into a mold (which may be made of sand, metal or ceramic), to create simple or complex parts. Sand molding has been in use since at least 645 BC. Through the ages, metalcasting remained a fundamental part of the process of manufacturing products for human use.

One of the earliest known cast-metal products made in North America was the Saugus Pot in Massachusetts in 1646. By the time the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, metalcasting was an established, critical industry, with seven foundry owners signing the Declaration of Independence. As the U.S. economy industrialized, metalcasters were at the forefront. Foundries helped the railroad industry lay tracks across the continent beginning in the 1830s, were essential to the first iron-clad warship during the Civil War, and were found in the first Naval submarine in 1881. The organization now known as the American Foundry Society (AFS) held its first meeting in Pennsylvania in 1896. Investment casting came into use just a year later.

In the 20th Century, the United States developed the highest living standards known to mankind. Manufacturing was at the center of that progress, and metalcasting was key to manufacturing, as new industries such as automobiles, air travel, air conditioning, modern defense-related products, and space exploration came into being. Foundries sprang up across North America. The first AFS student chapter was established in Minnesota in 1907, which was the same year that a patent was issued for a high-pressure die-casting machine. President Truman thanked AFS for foundries’ integral support of the war effort in 1946. Shell molding came to the U.S. in 1947, and ductile iron was developed in 1948 to supplement gray iron.

Today, metalcasting is a $33 billion industry in the United States alone, with about 1,900 foundries employing close to 200,000 persons. Visit a foundry and you may see examples of 3D printing, computer-aided design and casting analysis, as well as cobots and robots. Castings are found in 90 percent of durable manufactured goods, and most people are seldom more than 10 feet away from a casting. Clean water gets to our homes and schools thanks to castings, just as castings are critical to the farm equipment that harvests our food, or the energy that heats our buildings and powers our vehicles, which themselves include metal castings.

Metalcasters are among the most prominent of recyclers at all phases of production, recycling millions of tons of scrap metal yearly.  Many foundries recondition and reuse sand for their molds, which is another example of recycling. One U.S. metalcaster now reuses more than 800,000 tons of sand every year, a stunning example of the magnitude of this recycling. Other recycled materials at foundries includes steel drums, pallets, and packaging materials.

If you have technical questions or challenges related to castings, regardless of metal type or casting process, please contact Steve Robison, Frank Headington or Tom Dore in the AFS Technical Services Division at 800-537-4237. Serving you, the buyers and designers of castings, is an important part of the AFS mission.

Click here to see this story as it appears in the July/August 2019 issue of MCDP.