What used to cost £100,000 and take up to six months can now be done in a week.
That’s the technical advance at William Cook Cast Products in Sheffield following a £6m investment in a new Precision Foundry and equipment, including the largest 3D printer in the world.
It can produce wax patterns of new complexity in one tenth of the time, for one tenth of the cost and with one tenth of the material as machining a shape from steel and aluminium.
The new process involves dipping printed wax patterns in a ceramic slurry that is baked hard. It is heated a second time to melt away the wax – the ‘lost wax’ method – before molten steel is poured into the empty ceramic mould.
Once cooled, the mould is broken off to reveal a finished product which needs no ‘fettling’, grinding to achieve a perfect finish.
Chairman, Sir Andrew Cook, aged 67, was upbeat about the firm following its latest “reinvention” and said it was the future of precision engineering in the UK.
He said: “All the commodity stuff has gone to China and steel is the last choice of the engineer because it is difficult to work compared to aluminium, cast iron and plastic, although it is very high strength and can be welded.
“If there is a future in first world manufacturing it is in precision engineering.
“The 3D printing techniques allow production of much larger, precision components more cheaply – you create your tooling by printing it rather than spending months and tens of thousands of pounds making complex shapes.
“I have changed the focus of this group many times in the last 50 years to cope with big market changes. There will be growth – there has to be growth to justify the investment.”
As part of that investment the firm closed a site at Halfway and moved workers into its Parkway site, home to the new Precision Foundry.
Speaking to staff at the opening, Sir Andrew said: “Steel was first poured in this shed in 1973. It was state-of-the-art for the period but by the 1980s it had been overtaken by technology. We started again with a complete new investment to give it a new lease of life.
“That lasted until 2006, by then commodity products had gone to China and the industries we served like mining transport had either died or changed products such that this factory was obsolete.”
It was the same story at the Halfway facility after its market also changed, he added.
“I decided to give this business a future by bringing them together in this site and modernising them to make high-technology, complex components which China can’t or doesn’t make. Combined with the heavy integrity facility across the road it should give this business a long-term future. There’s a big team here and with effort from everyone I’m confident this factory will see me out.”
The investment safeguarded 200 jobs, he added. The group employs 500 across three sites, in Sheffield, Leeds and County Durham. Turnover is £60m, export is 80 per cent of business.
n William Cook won Component of the Year at the 2017 Cast Metals Industry Awards for a valve cage for the oil and gas industry created using a 3D printed pattern.