For millennia, a sword was a warrior’s weapon of choice. Forged by a blacksmith heating metal or a combination of metals and working it into shape, the best swords for winning battles were not the sharpest or the longest, they were the strongest, most hard-wearing ones.

To this day, forging remains the manufacturing method of choice for high-integrity products, such as components for gas-turbine engines and pressure-containing equipment that must be strong, durable and safe. These components must also meet the demands of a progressively environmentally conscious world. Further, they should be manufactured using sustainable methods and be able to withstand high temperatures such as those within aerospace engines, which have increased to help boost fuel efficiency. They should also be designed with lightweighting in mind.

 

The Challenges of Modern Forging

There is a clear need for increasingly sophisticated parts and components that are made using ever more exotic materials, yet forging typically remains a “black-art” style of manufacturing that has failed to keep pace with advancements in Industry 4.0.

Modern-day forging, for example, is a challenging environment for operators to work in productively. Imagine the intense heat coming from the furnaces, making it unbearably hot. It is noisy due to the stroking of the press. Lubricant sprays, carbon deposits and scale produced during the forging process make it dirty and dusty. High capital costs for the purchase of forging equipment can also mean that the equipment operators are working with might be several decades old, offering minimal data-capture capabilities.

This limited availability of forging process data has a knock-on (causal) effect when it comes to new product introduction. With a purely indicative modeling and simulation capability – instead of a truly predictive one – many companies settle for oversized and machined product options. They follow tried-and-tested methods instead of producing near-net-shaped forged components, which negatively affects material utilization, post-processing and overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

In today’s forging environment, we observe that planned preventive maintenance or the upgrade of forging equipment often falls behind that of, say, machining and metrology equipment. Forging equipment problems, in contrast, might not be addressed until a press fails to produce the required products.

The forging environment currently relies on highly skilled operators who have amassed tacit knowledge of a particular press or process. They intuitively know how to adjust tooling to achieve desired product output, which solves the immediate issue of product delivery but is clearly not an efficient method for assuring the continuity of a product or component, especially with an aging workforce.

 

Future-Proofing Forging for Centuries to Come

FutureForge, which is launching at the AFRC later this year, will challenge this status quo. Forging is crucial for manufacturing high-integrity components, so we must develop a future vision for the forging sector to enhance its capabilities for the coming centuries.

A $23.8 million investment is helping establish this new advanced-engineering facility. It will put Scotland at the forefront of the movement to transform the forging supply chain and will house the world’s most advanced hot-forging research platform. FutureForge will include a one-of-a-kind, Industry 4.0-ready demonstrator and will see the AFRC collaborate with companies across the aerospace, oil and gas, energy, nuclear and rail industries. The goal is to help companies embrace new forging techniques and technologies, enabling cost-effective validation for high-integrity forged products.

 

Digital Future for Forging

We can transform forging into a modern-day predictive process using digital technologies. The Industry 4.0 capabilities within FutureForge are truly unique, and they will continue to evolve over time. By accessing and interpreting relevant forging data, we can work with companies to better understand and even control part-to-part variation, reduce process time, improve material utilization and cut costs.

We are already working on several research projects helping to enhance our existing capabilities in this area. The aim of this work is to enhance our knowledge and sharpen our skills so that we are ready to help our customers address complex challenges and opportunities.   

In one project, we are embedding sensors into forging dies for rapid, localized temperature and strain data to provide data that will facilitate detailed models of the forging process. In another, we are developing a fully immersive simulator that will act as a training tool for users of FutureForge, bringing huge safety and productivity benefits to the training of highly skilled forge operators.

 

Tri-Modal Forging

The second unique feature of FutureForge is the installation of a custom-made, tri-modal forging press, which enables open-die, closed-die and isothermal forging at an industrially representative scale on one press platform. While we know that open die and closed die are relatively common forging modes, isothermal forging is a specialist process used by just a handful of companies around the world using proprietary techniques. We are exploring all three modes and the various benefits that they can bring to global manufacturers, OEMs and the growing local companies with which we work.

The combination of multiple forging steps used to convert cast ingots into billets though open-die forging, coupled with the complex thermal and mechanical history of the part, makes the process difficult to accurately model and predict. The learned skills of the manufacturer allow for a successful forge, but – with limitations around the data generated from the process – it is nearly impossible to scale up our approach for advanced techniques. When we continue the process, closed-die forging allows us to manufacture shaped components that offer high strength and fatigue resistance. Here we are working with industrial customers to develop processes to achieve better material utilization for high-strength alloys.

Isothermal forging is an exceptionally challenging process, but it opens up the use of powdered metallic superalloys and intermetallics, which cannot be forged by other means. Lightweight and strong, these materials are difficult to forge but can survive at extremely high temperatures, meaning we can use them to create components that are suited to high-temperature industrial applications.

By combining digital technologies with all three forging modes and supplementing this capability with the AFRC’s world-leading material characterization, residual stress, metrology and modeling expertise, we will better understand the subtleties of each processing method. We will also aid industry in the development of a controlled process, opening new capabilities for the manufacture of high-integrity parts.

 

The Future of the Forge

The FutureForge research program will encompass collaboration across academia, research and technology institutions and industrial organizations. A joint investment by the Aerospace Technology Institute, Scottish Enterprise and High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), the program is harnessed by the existing expertise of the AFRC and the wider National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (NMIS). This R&D activity will help to develop and enhance forging processes, improving quality and efficiency for the next generation of materials and components and the requirements that they have to meet.

The collaborative nature of the program is expected to uncover tangible benefits along the way, revolutionizing the forging sector and working with it to become more efficient and productive, enhancing the product development cycle and potentially bringing certain manufacturing capabilities back to the U.K.

The size of our press, though modest by some industrial standards, is still an impressive piece of research infrastructure. Providing a state-of-the-art platform for data gathering and connectivity, it will allow for the digitization of hot forging to be tested, demonstrated and refined. It will also create a platform for addressing the challenges of scale and translation.

This physical capability will enable a multidisciplinary team to demonstrate the potential of metallurgy to address emerging industrial and societal challenges. FutureForge and the programs it supports will generate data on a process that, despite its long history, is not fully understood.

As FutureForge becomes a reality and we see the facility come to life, we want to connect with organizations from around the world to develop capabilities and initiate a movement that will truly impact the global supply chain.

 

Professor Michael Ward is technical director at the University of Strathclyde’s (Scotland) Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC), which is part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) group. He can be contacted at michael.ward@strath.ac.uk. For further information and to get involved, visit afrc.org.uk.