Making aluminum as if it were spaghetti, accurate to one-hundredth of a millimeter

In an airplane, every gram counts. So yes, including the flap in the boot above the seats. Rob van Oene, director of the aluminum company Mifa, pushes a piece of aluminum across the table, which is immediately recognisable. “Here in the middle is the handle with which you open the valve.”

Trends such as cheaper flights have led to more seats on the plane, he explains. It costs more fuel. “That weight should ideally be compensated for somewhere. Well, it’s often in those kinds of materials.” The piece of aluminum weighs next to nothing. Not so long ago, these types of aircraft parts were still made of stainless steel.

At Mifa in Venlo (350 employees), everything revolves around one question: how can you make something even easier? Can it be designed differently, given a special coating?

Weight is becoming more important in industry day by day, now that heavy batteries are increasingly used in, for example, bicycles and cars. And the weight was already crucial, simply because nobody wants unnecessarily heavy products. Sooner or later, the producers often end up with Mifa aan de Maas, part of the listed industrial group Aalberts.

“This is going to Seattle,” explains director Van Oene at a wing section. He refers to the Boeing factory in the United States. Ahead is a box with housings for wires in an electric car.

Photo Merlin Daleman

aluminum paste

Due to the increasing demand for light materials, the parent company, which on Wednesday sent the shareholders a status report (see inset), has high expectations for Mifa. Aalberts makes heating systems for buildings, supplies components for chip machine builder ASML and metal parts for, among other things, the automotive industry.

The development of lightweight materials is one of the most technologically advanced activities that Aalberts is involved in. Making an aluminum handle is more difficult than you might think. Rob van Oene explains. To create a handle, Mifa presses a soft ‘aluminum paste’ through a mold – extrusion, it’s called. It’s a bit like making spaghetti. But extrusion elsewhere usually takes place with much larger, less precise shapes – such as for centimeter-wide window frames.

They can do that at Mifa on a much smaller scale, down to a few hundredths of a millimetre. With specially designed machines, you can make much thinner – and therefore lighter – housings for bicycle batteries, for example. There are only a few factories in the world that can do this.

The process in the Venlo factory has a classic industrial look. A group of men in work clothes observe a noisy machine from which a long aluminum rod emerges. It is important that the aluminum paste is pressed very precisely through the mold. “Otherwise you end up with a crooked product,” explains Van Oene. The smaller the shape, the harder it is to get a straight profile.

With this technique, Mifa has been able to replace several steel products with aluminum: think of the carriages in airplanes or the seats. “We talk all the time about what they want with subcontractors who fit out aircraft,” says Van Oene.

Photo Merlin Daleman

false language

Often this also involves finishing the material. Aluminum is less strong and hard than steel, so you have to ‘anodize’ it, for example. “Then it becomes more scratch-resistant.” Sometimes it also needs to be sanded down to make it look like stainless steel. “Actually, we’re trying to mimic steel with something else.”

Making a part out of aluminum can be very difficult and sometimes leads to internal discussion. With extrusion, you get aluminum spaghetti threads, but if you also want to make a 3D element out of it, it requires a lot of thought.

Van Oene uses a square aluminum frame. “This is a housing for a control mechanism for an aircraft.” It was common for it to be partly cast and partly made of sheet metal. The manufacturer asked if this could also be done entirely with extruded elements. Then it would be even easier.

Typically such a task where the technical department says: not possible. “But in the end someone has to decide: we do it anyway!”, says Van Oene. “We have to challenge the factory, but also the customers: they have to want to choose this.”

Jan Aalberts founded Mifa in 1975 and actually laid the foundation for the later group – the original press is still used. He had learned the extrusion technique in the United States and wanted to introduce it to Europe. He would then expand his aluminum business through numerous acquisitions into one of the largest and most stable – but relatively unknown – industrial giants in the Netherlands, with around 14,000 employees, around €3 billion in revenue and 145 factories worldwide.

In 2012, Jan Aalberts handed over the management to Wim Pelsma. The new boss has given the conglomerate more focus in recent years. It now focuses on four market areas: climate-friendly buildings, chip technology, sustainable transport and industrial niches (such as Mifa) – this is where it sees growth. Aalberts sold the business units that were less suitable, such as PVC company Lasco in 2021. At the same time, it made acquisitions in promising markets, such as aluminum trader Premier Thermal. Aalberts’ turnover has doubled in ten years.

How is Mifa doing? Where does making products easier stop? Van Oene: “In addition to minimizing weight, there is also miniaturization. So you put everything in a smaller space with the same functionality.” So lighter and smaller. Surely just as relevant to Mifa: the use of magnesium. That metal is even lighter than aluminum.

Van Oene: “But magnesium is much more expensive. But customers who really have weight at the top of their priority list are sometimes willing to pay for it.” Then you should think about parts for special wheelchairs, which can therefore accelerate better. “Or mechanical engineering. If a moving part of a machine weighs less, it can go faster and maybe produce more.”

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