Engel, the global plastics machinery producer based in Austria, is now offering for public sale the first-ever injection molding machine to produce parts made from amorphous zirconium alloys.
Working with Liquidmetal Technologies of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, Engel has modified an e-motion 110 to vacuum melt Liquidmetal alloy ingots via induction heating. The liquid metal is then injected into a cooled mold. That’s the opposite of plastic injection molding, which uses heated molds. The melting technology is also very different. Cycle times for the amorphous metal alloy parts are three to five minutes, quite a bit longer than is required for similarly sized thermoplastic parts.
One of the first machines was shipped to Liquidmetal Technologies, which last month opened its first company-owned manufacturing center. Engel also has a machine in Austria that will be available for customer demonstrations. Apple and Swatch, which hold exclusive rights contracts with Liquidmetal, may also have the new all-electric Engel machine, which has a clamping force of 110 metric tons. Information involving the licensees has been confidential.
The beauty of the process is that it is one-step injection molding, unlike powder injection molding, which requires a debinding and sintering step. Amorphous metal alloys also offer significantly stronger properties than can be achieved with powder metals. The zirconium alloys originally developed by researchers at Cal Tech are extremely tough with high tensile strength and flexibility combined with excellent elastic recovery. Swatch’s CEO says Liquidmetal is “ideal for watches because the alloy is extremely durable, flexible, and much harder than steel.”
Engel describes its unique metal injection molding process as ideal for medical, military and aerospace technology, and sports equipment. Consumer electronics and watch component applications are already covered by long-term contractual agreements with Apple and Swatch, respectively. Apple has developed significant intellectual property on the Liquidmetal molding process. It’s not known if any of that technology is used by Engel.
The maximum shot weight is 100 grams (3.5 oz.). About 20 grams are required for the sprue, resulting in a maximum part weight of 80 grams. The Engel production cell is equipped with a fully automated material feed and automated part handling, de rigueur for Engel systems.
Liquidmetal recently certified two American mold makers for its process: Matrix Tool of Fairview, Pennsylvania, and Mold Craft of Willernie, Minnesota.
The Liquidmetal technology was invented in 1993, but the path to commercialization has been extremely bumpy. One issue is the high cost of the material. Another is its newness. Each part requires a significant testing and approval process. Another is Liquidmetal’s requirement for a license by every user. Engel, in fact, is asking its prospective customers to go through Liquidmetal to be qualified.
It’s been long-rumored that Liquidmetal would be used for a key component, possibly a housing, in a mass-produced Apple product such as a phone, but it hasn’t happened yet. Liquidmetal is just now developing its own group of sales representatives, who attended a training meteting at the new manufacturing center in California last month.
The plan is for prospective customers to develop parts on Liquidmetal’s Engel and then set up their own manufacturing, either captively or with a contract manufacturer (CM).
“We’ll start out making the parts here, qualify the alloys, the machines with the design, make sure the parts work, what the costs are, then we’ll move it out to customers and CMs and then finally we’ll open it up to royalty based work,” CEO Tom Steipp said in a conference call, as recorded by Seeking Alpha.
Thirty-two prototype parts were produced by Liquidmetal’s former exclusive production partner Visser Precision Cast (VPC). “With respect to the 32 previously produced prototypes that went through VPC, four parts remain active. Potential production for these parts will require ongoing work and further negotiation with VPC,” Steipp told investment analysts.
Liquidmetal recently shipped 100 spec-compliant prototype parts made on its new Engel to an aerospace customer. It was the first order received through its new American sales network. Next up is developing a sales network in Europe, which generally is more receptive to innovative, expensive molding technologies.
Recent financials for Liquidmetal are pretty dismal. Revenues for the third quarter of 2014 were $97,000 versus $456,000 in 2013. “The overall decrease is due to 2013 revenue being primarily related to contracted R&D while during 2014 revenue was all related to prototype, consistent with our R&D team’s effort on commercializing our technology,” said Tom Chung, chief financial officer.
Gross margin was $12,000 compared to $60,000 in the year-earlier quarter.
Liquidmetal Technologies is the epitome of a penny stock with share prices trading in a band from 14 cents to 41 cents per share in the past 52 weeks.