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April 6, 1999
Initiative replaces 'art' with science in ceramics production

Research partners 'demystify' ceramics manufacturing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, five commercial ceramic manufacturers, and Los Alamos National Laboratory are making ceramic history by taking the "art" out of ceramics production and replacing it with science, resulting in better products and lower production costs.

For the past three years they have worked together under a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA), exploring new and better ways of manufacturing advanced ceramic components. It is the first time that competing ceramic companies and national laboratories have joined forces for research and development.

"We are demystifying ceramics manufacturing," says Sandia scientist Kevin Ewsuk who is spearheading the project. "In the past, new ceramic component production involved trial and error refinement of die designs. We are developing a systematic approach to manufacturing that involves parts being designed, manufactured, and tested in a predictive mode."

The agreement, which remains in effect for two more years, is a combined effort of Sandia, Los Alamos, and five ceramics manufacturers making up the Association of American Ceramic Component Manufacturers Consortium, Inc. (AACCMCI). The companies are Delphi Energy and Engine Management Systems of Flint, Mich.; Advanced Cerametrics of Lambertville, N.J.; CeramTec North America of Laurens, S.C.; Superior Technical Ceramics of St. Albans, Vt.; and Zircoa Inc. of Solon, Ohio.

Sandia joined the CRADA because ceramics play a key role in the Laboratories' mission. Ceramics are found in products that touch just about everybody's life. They're in household appliances, automobiles, airplanes, computers and medical equipment and have a variety of functions ranging from structural to electrical to optical.

As a result of the research, the group has already made several significant strides. One of the participating companies installed a new product line that created two new job orders and increased sales by $500,000. Another saved $50,000 in six months on a line of pressed ceramic materials. A third estimates a $100,000 savings from process improvements. Still another cut manufacturing costs by 20 percent while making a better product faster.

The group also achieved a primary goal -- modeling the forming of a ceramic part on a personal computer and using that model to determine if the design has flaws.

"The intent is to develop simple computer programs that a layman can use on the factory floor to figure out if a component or process has any flaws, and to correct them," Ewsuk adds.

The manufacturer could then make a die from the model and be guaranteed that it will work.

Ultimately computer modeling could replace the current method of making ceramics. The manufacturer designs a part, anticipating from experience that it will function, makes the die, and then builds a prototype part. If the prototype has problems, the die has to be redesigned and retooled.

All this is expensive and time consuming. Dies can cost $5,000 each. And when one is flawed and has to be modified, the cost goes up.

Ewsuk says the national laboratories' role in the CRADA is to analyze ceramic powders and powder compaction, and to model the compaction (forming) process. The ceramic manufacturers make the ceramics parts based on the computer models, using different powders, compacting methods, and dies.

When the project first started, all five of the companies made parts using the same materials and pressing the same shapes. Their products were turned over to Sandia and Los Alamos for analysis through different testing techniques such as ultrasound, optical and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and X-ray computed tomography (XRCT). These provided the groundwork to develop and test computer models, and to develop process diagnostics.

The companies were then assigned specific parts to build by the national labs. Each used different powders and compaction techniques. When they were completed, Sandia analyzed the finished parts to validate the computer model predictions.

Ewsuk says the CRADA has allowed the participating companies to learn more about why some powders are difficult to press, supplied answers to why poor pressing occurs, and provided insight into what to do to improve powders and the conditions for pressing.

He adds that by far, the most significant contribution to date of the CRADA are the "refined, discreet, and finite computer models that can be used to predict ceramic powder compaction behavior."

"As the CRADA has evolved, the participating companies have received the benefit of obtaining new characterization, design, and process tools to optimize the manufacturing techniques and performance of pressed ceramics -- resulting in savings and more dollars earned," Ewsuk says. "We expect the innovations developed from the CRADA will have a potential impact on other companies in search of state-of-the-art manufacturing processes."

Sandia is a multiprogram DOE laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy, and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Media contact:
Chris Burroughs, coburro@sandia.gov, (505) 844-0948

Technical contact:
Kevin Ewsuk, kgewsuk@sandia.gov, (505) 272-7620

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