Investment casting is used with almost any castable metal. However, aluminium alloys, copper alloys, and steel are the most common. In industrial use, the size limits are 3 g (0.1 oz) to several hundred kilograms.The cross-sectional limits are 0.6 mm (0.024 in) to 75 mm (3.0 in). Typical tolerances are 0.1 mm for the first 25 mm (0.005 in for the first inch) and 0.02 mm for the each additional centimeter (0.002 in for each additional inch). A standard surface finish is 1.3–4 micrometres (50–125 μin) RMS.
The history of lost-wax casting dates back thousands of years. Its earliest use was for idols, ornaments and jewellery, using natural beeswax for patterns, clay for the moulds and manually operated bellows for stoking furnaces. Examples have been found across the world, such as in the Harappan Civilisation (2500–2000 BC) idols, Egypt's tombs of Tutankhamun (1333–1324 BC), Mesopotamia, Aztec and Mayan Mexico, and the Benin civilization in Africa where the process produced detailed artwork of copper, bronze and gold.
The earliest known text that describes the investment casting process (Schedula Diversarum Artium) was written around 1100 A.D. by Theophilus Presbyter, a monk who described various manufacturing processes, including the recipe for parchment. This book was used by sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), who detailed in his autobiography the investment casting process he used for the Perseus with the Head of Medusa sculpture that stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, Italy.
Investment casting came into use as a modern industrial process in the late 19th century, when dentists began using it to make crowns and inlays, as described by Barnabas Frederick Philbrook of Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1897,. Its use was accelerated by William H. Taggart of Chicago, whose 1907 paper described his development of a technique. He also formulated a wax pattern compound of excellent properties, developed an investment material, and invented an air-pressure casting machine.
In the 1940s, World War II increased the demand for precision net shape manufacturing and specialized alloys that could not be shaped by traditional methods, or that required too much machining. Industry turned to investment casting. After the war, its use spread to many commercial and industrial applications that used complex metal parts.
Investment casting is used in the aerospace and power generation industries to produce turbine blades with complex shapes or cooling systems. Blades produced by investment casting can include single-crystal (SX), directionally solidified (DS), or conventional equiaxed blades. Investment casting is also widely used by firearms manufacturers to fabricate firearm receivers, triggers, hammers, and other precision parts at low cost. Other industries that use standard investment-cast parts include military, medical, commercial and automotive.
With the increased availability of higher-resolution 3D printers, 3D printing has begun to be used to make much larger sacrificial molds used in investment casting. Planetary Resources has used the technique to print the mold for a new small satellite, which is then dipped in ceramic to form the investment cast for a titanium space bus with integral propellant tank and embedded cable routing.
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