Inside EICF

Reflections on a Career in Investment Casting: An Interview with Steve Irwin

Carlos Olabe, CEO of the European

Investment Casters’ Federation, talks to Steve Irwin, recently retired Rolls- Royce Casting Specialist and former Chairman of the EICF.


How did you first become involved in investment casting?

In the mid-eighties, I studied metallurgy

at the University

of Leeds. The university organised a tour of several high-tech foundries, including Rolls-Royce’s Bristol foundry and the company’s neighbouring Research & Development foundry. I was blown away by the sheer ingenuity of the investment casting process, and the fact that such an elaborate process could produce precision castings of such complexity. In 1988, I was a Graduate Trainee

working for British Steel when I heard that AETC (now a subsidiary of PCC Airfoils) were looking to develop new core and shell materials in conjunction with the University of Leeds. I was an avid aviation enthusiast, so the prospect of combining my interest in

metallurgy with the investment

casting of gas turbine components was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. I successfully applied for the post and spent two years developing new shell systems as part of a Teaching Company Scheme (TCS) project; at the end of the two-year period, AETC took me on as a Process Engineer. In 1995, I left AETC to join Rolls-Royce and I’ve spent the rest of my career intimately involved in the investment casting of both conventionally-cast and single crystal (SX) turbine components.


You’ve been involved in the investment casting of turbine

components for over 34 years. What made you want to specialise in this niche area of investment casting?

14 ❘ December 2020 ® A To this day, I am continually

fascinated by the huge variety of materials, processes and technologies that make up the investment casting process. It’s quite incredible to think that a method of manufacture conceived some 6000 years ago is now the high- tech, manufacturing method of choice for such a wide range of components and commodities. It’s got everything; ceramic, metallic, polymeric and wax- based materials, injection moulding, casting and thermal processing technologies, and an enormous range of finishing, chemical processing and dimensional inspection & NDE technologies. You can spend an entire career in this industry and still learn something new every day.

I was also

very fortunate to work for Rolls-Royce where, as a Casting Specialist, you get to work closely alongside both Manufacturing and Design Engineers, and have complete ‘line of sight’ of the process from core manufacture through to engine build and in-service support.


The UK is ranked as Europe’s largest producer of investment

castings, with an estimated 50% market share of the European investment casting sector’s total revenues. To what extent do you attribute this to gas turbine development in the UK?

I’ve never really thought about this until now. I guess the UK’s heritage

and role in gas turbine development is a major reason why the UK remains the largest producer of investment castings in Europe. Rolls-Royce were the UK’s pioneers of investment casting back in 1943, when its Hillington factory in Glasgow acquired the Austenal process from Austenal Laboratories in New York. From that point forward, Rolls-Royce’s clear strategic intent has been to develop and maintain a

strong domestic casting capability to support the manufacture of its most complex turbine blades, nozzle guide vanes and seal segments - a stance few other gas turbine OEMs have adopted. Rolls-Royce now operates three SX casting foundries in the UK, including the world’s most advanced SX casting facility in Rotherham.

The UK is

also blessed with a number of very capable investment casting foundries serving sectors other than aerospace; companies specialising in automotive parts, medical equipment, structural castings, art castings and a vast array of commercial and engineering castings.


Investment casting is often viewed as the pinnacle of high-

tech casting processes. In your view, how important is industry collaboration with universities and research centres in sustaining and promoting the technology?

Collaboration is essential if the industry is to remain competi-

tive. Not only do academic institutions and research centres play a vital role in pushing the boundaries of what’s seem- ingly possible, but they also provide a much-needed insight into the under- pinning science and understanding of what many still describe as a ‘black art’. In many ways, it’s a symbiotic relation- ship. Universities and research centres benefit from the revenue, industrial ex- pertise and process know-how that an industrial partnership brings. Foundries

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