When it comes to forging research, it turns out that size really does matter. The bigger the press, the lower the chance of using it for experimentation and the higher the costs associated with the research. Too small, and the data collected don’t give an accurate representation. You will also find issues with translating research for effective use within industry. Get the size just right, however, and we can begin to truly understand a process steeped in tradition and start to transform one of the manufacturing sector’s most traditional and important supply chains.
An increasingly recognizable feature of today’s innovation landscape is transitional research, which is aimed at taking research outcomes and developing them through mid-stages of technology readiness. As we consider truly advanced uses of forging, building on the historic process and scaling up our approach, it is incredibly important that the size of the press and the transitional research is just right.
Challenging the Size and Scale of Industrial Research Facilities
Huge industrial presses are scarce, expensive to operate and experience high operational demand, which negates time for dedicated experimentation. Lab-scale presses and testing machines, on the other hand, are simply too small to allow for a useful representation of the metallurgical evolution that is central to the purpose of the process.
Too much reliance on data generated at these small scales carries significant risks in translation. This is most apparent when we think of forging as a material conversion process – used as a way of achieving desired microstructure and mechanical properties, such as enhanced strength or durability. Microstructure development does not scale in a simple way. Building models calibrated only at lab scale means that the models can, at best, only be used as an indicator of whether a change is positive or not.
As discussed in the previous two articles, we are building FutureForge, the world’s most advanced hot-forging research platform that will challenge the size and scale of existing industrial-representative research facilities.
The Goldilocks facility, which is a joint investment by the Aerospace Technology Institute, Scottish Enterprise and High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), aims to be not too big to allow affordable data gathering but not too small to prevent the capture of critical behavior. FutureForge is positioned to establish truly data-driven process development. The provision of greater quantities of more representative data through FutureForge will enable future models that are truly predictive in more quantitative terms.
The research program will encompass collaboration across academia, research and technology institutes and industrial organizations harnessed by the existing expertise of the AFRC and the wider National Manufacturing Institute for 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 must meet.
The emergence of dedicated research facilities and networks in the manufacturing industry, most notably the U.K.’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult, provide access to industrially representative environments and equipment aimed at demonstrating the transition from proof of concept to low-rate production.
Addressing Scale-up Risks Away from the Production Environment
This has proven to have many benefits, allowing scale-up risks to be addressed away from the day-to-day pressures of the production environment. It is also particularly effective in cases where the translational research environment can directly replicate the physical nature of the planned production process.
There are some limitations, however, especially in cases like forging, where processes and equipment are somewhat specialized. Large forging presses are high-value capital assets and typically bespoke in nature, making the prospect of a direct replica of the production environment in the research facility unrealistic, even if it were affordable.
This can make the prospect of change and improvement seem daunting. However, there are some major industrial needs for that change. If we consider the nuclear industry as an example, and in particular the many global programs aimed at developing small modular reactors (SMRs), we can immediately see that there is potential need for a dramatic increase in the number of large pressure-vessel forgings. There are few sources of forgings of this size and integrity, and few sources with the capacity to undertake production (let alone research) in support of such a challenge. It is a test to global capacity.
Translational research has an important role to play in these situations because it allows a level of process development to take place that does not disrupt operational delivery. The cost of capital in the case of developing SMRs on these projects is large, with no return until the plant is in service. Any amount of time that can be bought for these programs from translational research is vital, especially given the provision that pressure-vessel forgings can have a lead time of months or years – long enough to impact delivery of the overall program.
A new approach to translational research and scale-up for forging is needed – one where value can be extracted from the data developed at an affordable cost on representative, rather than production-scale, equipment. This is inherently much more generically applicable than a full replication of a production environment, and it generates more value from capital investment.
A Bold and Ambitious Program of Transformation
High-integrity forging is primarily about converting a material’s microstructure and, therefore, the properties of metals to achieve desired and even tailored strength, durability and life. Microstructural evolution simply does not scale in a way that is easy to replicate by simple numerical manipulation.
Part of the FutureForge vision is to establish 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.
Mathematical Techniques, Machine Learning and Digital Technologies
Allowing this transformation and then translating its effects to different sizes and scales requires deep expertise in material behavior, process control, modeling, materials analysis and product assurance. The transition also requires the use of novel mathematical techniques, machine learning and emerging digital technologies, making now the ideal time to attempt a bold and ambitious program of transformation in this area. The AFRC, NMIS and partner organizations adopt a multidisciplinary approach to this problem underpinned by expertise in material behaviors and processing technology.
Providing a unique physical environment for some of the most challenging aspects of hot forging, the FutureForge facility boasts a 2,000-ton hydraulic press with open-die, closed-die and isothermal capability. Though modest in size by some industrial standards, this press remains impressive as a piece of research infrastructure and establishes our position offering the world’s most advanced hot-forging research platform.
Using this, we aim to provide an industrial digitization demonstrator for forging that offers applicability across a range of traditional industries. A state-of-the-art platform for data gathering and connectivity, it will allow many possibilities 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 is allowing us to create a unique multidisciplinary team that is motivated to explore and demonstrate the potential of metallurgy to address emerging industrial and societal challenges. Critically, FutureForge and the programs it supports will generate data on a process that, despite its long history, is still not fully understood.
Not too big and not too small, FutureForge is just the right size to transform our understanding of one of the manufacturing sector’s most traditional and important supply chains. FutureForge will not only stimulate radical developments in the art and science of forging, it will also nurture new thinking on the scale and, therefore, investment requirements for tomorrow’s experimental infrastructure.