Investment casting is an industrial process based on and also called lost-wax casting, one of the oldest known metal-forming techniques.From 5,000 years ago, when beeswax formed the pattern, to today’s high-technology waxes, refractory materials and specialist alloys, the castings allow the production of components with accuracy, repeatability, versatility and integrity in a variety of metals and high-performance alloys. Lost-foam casting is a modern form of investment casting that eliminates certain steps in the process.
The process is generally used for small castings, but has been used to produce complete aircraft door frames, steel castings of up to 300 kg (660 lbs) and aluminium castings of up to 30 kg (66 lbs). It is generally more expensive per unit than die casting or sand casting, but has lower equipment costs. It can produce complicated shapes that would be difficult or impossible with die casting, yet like that process, it requires little surface finishing and only minor machining.
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 in Pakistan's 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.