In the manufacturing world, many people use technology readiness as a means of describing the journey within the valley of death, the gap between proof of concept and first use in the operational environment.
The trouble with forging and technology readiness is that, as one of the earliest metalworking processes, most people would argue that it has been “ready” for centuries. This is, of course, superficially correct, until we consider truly advanced uses of forging. In today’s world, innovative manufacturing is more important than ever, with a focus on tackling climate change, responding to calls for embracing Industry 4.0 and addressing circular efforts encouraging remanufacture.
As we discussed in June’s article, a unique facility is emerging in Scotland in the form of FutureForge. A joint investment by the Aerospace Technology Institute, Scottish Enterprise and High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), FutureForge aims to change the perceptions and realities surrounding the working of metals across the world.
Developing and Enhancing Forging Processes
The accompanying FutureForge research program will encompass collaboration across academia, research and technology institutes and industrial organizations. It will be harnessed by the existing expertise at the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) and the wider National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS). This research-and-development 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 will have to meet.
Forging new metal alloys for highly demanding applications is increasingly important, along with the engineering of tailored mechanical properties for use in very harsh and high-temperature environments. Looking at aerospace propulsion, for example, we can absolutely see this change in progress. For decades now, gas turbine engines have become increasingly more efficient by operating at extremely high temperatures – a trend made possible by the development of alloys that can operate well at elevated temperatures.
Lowering Emissions and Embracing the Circular Economy
As we seek to achieve lower emissions, we are seeing an acceleration of activity on electric aircraft. For the long-haul flight, this is likely to include some combination of hybrid propulsion systems – both gas turbine and electric – and the use of alternative fuels. This will drive further needs for new alloys designed to work under a new range of conditions and form the basis of research that we are currently engaged with at the AFRC.
Equally pertinent today is the potential use of forging in the circular economy, which seeks to eliminate waste and promote the continual use of resources. The circular economy aims to keep products, equipment and infrastructure in use for longer durations, thus improving the productivity of these resources. In the case of forging we want to generate high-strength metal from waste, including machining swarf, scrap and end-of-life material.
Considering today’s aerospace engines as an example, for every ton of metal in the final product, the supply chain typically needs to provide 1.5 tons of nickel superalloys, 1.1 tons of titanium and 1 ton of steel. The difference between the ton of the end product and the 3.6 tons of input material is machining swarf. Developments in forging have two key roles to play in addressing this challenge: the utilization of scarce material resources and the use of the energy needed for reprocessing.
We can achieve better material utilization by improving process design and making forgings that are closer to size, require less machining and produce less swarf. Forging can then be used as part of the reprocessing route for swarf by returning it to a useful state as high-grade material with good microstructural characteristics and using less energy from an improved process.
Forging a Different Pathway
While the lessons we have learned throughout the history of forging play a role in developing alloys for demanding applications and focus on the circular economy, we need to continue to develop our understanding of the process to allow us to make such advancements. To address these problems, it is necessary to forge a pathway from a traditional “black art” to a state-of-the-art technology for engineering the properties and performance of forged metals.
We know that forging is complex, sometimes dirty and often difficult to control, but it is important not to simply accept this situation. Technology is increasingly playing a part in enabling the alternatives to forging, and we need to ensure that technology, in the form of digitization and better predictive capabilities, is equally central to the future of forging. The nature of forging, especially hot forging at large scale, makes the idea of a truly automated green-button forging process problematic to many. Perhaps there will always be a need for a level of human intervention in such processes.
What is possible, however, is the idea of forging as a black box. Specifically, a black box that can take coarse starting material and consistently convert it into homogeneous and highly engineered metal that can withstand the highest temperatures and most difficult service conditions.
Variation is likely to be inherent in forging operations, especially where large forgings are concerned. A black-box-approach control would employ a digital twin to allow two-way communication between the real world and a virtual representation of the process as a systematic way of dealing with that variation. This will build on decades of development in forge modeling but with the added element of two-way communication for control.
Creating such a black box requires deep expertise in material behavior, process control, modeling, materials analysis and product assurance. The transition is also likely to be aided using machine learning and emerging digital technologies, making now the ideal time to attempt a bold and ambitious program of transformation in this area.
Bridging the Valley of Death
The HVMC has always positioned itself as bridging the so-called valley of death, aiming to increase exploitation of the excellent research outcomes from U.K. universities in industry. As one of the seven centers that make up the HMVC, the AFRC puts forging firmly within one of its focus areas, while the broad range of expertise across the center puts it in the best place to propel this historic process.
A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Complex Future of Forging
FutureForge has reinforced the AFRC’s position as the focal point for industrial forging R&D in the U.K. and has enabled collaborative relationships with major players in the U.K. research landscape, including the Alan Turing Institute and the Henry Royce Institute. These academics, coupled with the University of Strathclyde’s long-standing background in forging research and the HVMC’s connectivity to key industrial markets (including aerospace, energy and land transportation) ensure that FutureForge will develop a truly multidisciplinary approach to the complex issue of the future of forging.
The facility at the AFRC will provide a unique physical environment for some of the most challenging aspects of hot forging. It will be comprised of a 2,000-ton hydraulic press with open-die, closed-die and isothermal capability. Providing a state-of-the-art platform for data gathering and connectivity, it will allow for testing, demonstrating and refining the possibilities of digitalization of hot forging. A multidisciplinary team inspired to explore and demonstrate the potential of metallurgy to address emerging industrial and societal challenges will support our physical capability.
Our research programs are intended to generate data on a process that, despite its long history, is still not fully understood. This focus on gathering representative production data is an essential step in calibrating models, allowing them to transition from indicative tools that can help inform improvement to truly predictive techniques that can be actively used in process development and control.
FutureForge will shine a light on the black art of forging. In doing so, it will forge a future for a whole category of traditional and well-established manufacturing techniques, helping us to support companies from various sectors across the globe.