By Nathan Friar
Since the dawn of the Bronze Age over 5000 years ago, humans have been extracting metal from the earth and manipulating it to fit our needs. From tools and weapons to engine blocks and coins, it is almost impossible to look around and not observe some sort of metal creation today. Unfortunately, you can’t mine all of these final products straight from the ground. The final products are created from the raw metal taken out of the earth through a process called casting. Casting describes the creation of metal shapes using molds into which liquid metal is poured and solidified. This procedure is carried out in a factory designed specifically for casting, called a foundry, and UW-Madison happens to have one right on campus.
Located in the Materials Science and Engineering building, the current foundry has been operating at UW-Madison since 1992. Mainly funded by prominent members of the Wisconsin casting industry, this foundry pushed UW-Madison to the forefront of metallurgy and casting research and development in subsequent years. Today, the foundry still fosters a sense of creativity and provides knowledge of the casting process to students. Various classes are offered that teach undergraduates the basics of casting and how to navigate their way around the foundry.
The foundry classes offered on campus vary from semester to semester. In the fall 2015 semester, a class titled Advanced Metal Castings was offered. This class focused on different aspects of the casting process including mold design, casting properties, casting alloys and casting design. Featuring a very small class size of around 8–10 students, this lab met in the foundry once per week and gave students hands-on experience in the foundry. This course was offered due to popular demand by engineering students, and demonstrates that students have the power to influence what foundry classes are available for future semesters.
In addition, students not enrolled in a casting class can also participate in foundry activities, thanks to the American Foundry Society (AFS) UW-Madison student chapter. AFS is a national professional organization dedicated exclusively to promoting interest in foundry work and technology, and the chapter here on campus provides interested students the chance to get hands-on foundry experience. Led by their president, senior student Greg Johnson, this organization hosts many opportunities to learn about the foundry, today’s casting processes and to keep in touch with the latest news and developments from the casting industry.
One of the main events facilitated by the AFS UW-Madison chapter is the yearly foundry exhibition held during the UW-Madison Engineering Expo, which draws visitors of all ages. This AFS demonstration is one of the most talked about and well-liked demos at the expo. Titled Thermodynamics of Fire, it is used to demonstrate basic thermodynamic and casting concepts to visitors, and a variety of interactive activities are shown. Activities include casting of various metal shapes and a few other crowd favorites. “We take butane and run it through soapy water to make bubbles, which you can put on your hand and light on fire — so you get this big ball of flames in your hand,” Johnson says. “Kids love that one.” Since participants’ hands are wet, they aren’t at risk of getting burnt due to the high heat capacity of water. These events are so successful that the foundry exhibit won second place for people’s choice of favorite exhibit, and AFS hopes to continue this trend in future years.
Additionally, AFS hosts Foundry Fun Nights a few times per semester. Foundry Fun Nights are opportunities for students and their friends to visit the foundry and actually take part in casting processes. “Green-sand casting is one of the most common activities,” explains Johnson. “It uses a sand and clay mixture that you pack around a pattern, which when removed, leaves a mold with a hollow cavity in the shape the pattern. After taking out the pattern, you pour liquid metal into this mold, and when it cools, out comes your final product.” At their most recent Foundry Fun Night, visitors got to make and keep their own medallions with the AFS logo featured on the front. “These demonstrations are great way to learn and get a lot of people some hands-on experience with casting, and have a lot of fun at the same time,” says Johnson. Certainly, these events go a long way towards promoting interest in casting and the foundry itself.
Looking forward, the future of the foundry is unclear. Although it is still used for classes, demonstrations, and other events, it is used less frequently than it was upon its initial completion. The reallocation of the foundry space to other uses is being considered. “It’s a very real concern, and we’re taking it seriously,” states Johnson. “We want to show that we are using it, and illustrate that not only should the foundry be kept, but that we hope to see some renewed investment into it as well in order to keep it up-to-date. We are also reaching out to industry casting companies to help support the foundry.” When asked why having this foundry and the learning opportunities that come with it are important, Johnson reflected on the history of metal working as a whole. “Metallurgy is arguably one of the oldest professions, but that doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t used anymore. There are still many advancements that need to be made in this field, and I think with this foundry, UW-Madison has the opportunity to have a powerful metallurgy program.” Hopefully, this literal hot spot of learning will still be available to students and others for years to come.