Sheffield ‘FASTforge’ process set to change UK’s high value manufacturing industry

Researchers have developed a new concept in high value manufacturing which could lead to a more cost effective and sustainable production process in the aerospace industry.

FASTforge, developed by engineers at the University of Sheffield and funded by Innovate UK, is a new process for the production of aerospace grade titanium alloys. The technology will provide engineers with more design flexibility, and potentially lead to improved buy-to-fly ratios: currently for some aerospace components, 90% of the forged titanium alloy is machined away to waste material.

Availability of titanium is key to the UK’s ever-growing aerospace manufacturing industry, second in size only to the US. Primary aerospace companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Airbus have long term supply agreements with titanium producers, such as TIMET and VSMPO-AVISMA.

However, with growing demand for air travel across the globe, orders of civil aircraft, which are increasingly being manufactured from carbon composite fuselage and wing structures, are set to rise over the next decade. This will result in a corresponding increase in the need for titanium for fasteners and high strength forgings due to its compatibility with carbon.

With current world mill production capacity at approximately 130,000 tonnes, there will be restricted availability of titanium for both the aerospace and non-aerospace sectors unless additional sources of titanium are made available.

Titanium is a light-weight and inherent corrosion resistant material, giving it performance, environmental and cost ownership advantages over high grade steels. But it is three times the cost of steel, with limited supply. The FASTforge process shows how the benefits of titanium over steel can be achieved more efficiently and at lower cost.

Dr Martin Jackson / Co-Director of the Sheffield Titanium Alloy Research group (STAR)

Rutile sand to titanium powder to landing gear.Working with UK industry partners Metalysis, the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) and Safran Landing Systems, the group of researchers are working to transform rutile sand to novel titanium alloy aerospace components in three steps; production of titanium powder from the rutile sand, field-assisted sintering technology and a one step forging process.

As world leader in aircraft landing and braking systems, we’re highly interested in the prospects and benefits of such a breakthrough technology. In this project, we are bringing our state-of-the-art machining, testing capabilities and expertise in qualifying aerospace grade materials to ensure that the titanium components which will be manufactured under this new process become a benchmark for the industry.

Jean-Philippe Villain-Chastre / Safran Landing Systems

Professor Brad Wynne, EPSRC High Value Manufacturing Catapult Fellow says “There is worldwide exploitation potential for titanium, not only in the aerospace industry but in oil & gas, automotive and civil engineering. The UK owns the critical intellectual property of FAST-forge so has a great opportunity to maximise economic benefit.”

“It’s thanks to Innovate UK funding and the AFRC, whose role is to bridge the gap between university research and application in industry, that such projects can be established and result in a direct impact on the competitiveness of UK high-value manufacturing.”

Further information

FAST-forge process

Step 1: Metalysis Process

Working with Metalysis, the group have developed a low cost one solid state extraction process, as opposed to the current multi-step method, for high strength titanium alloy powder through using field assisted sintering technology.

The process has the potential to significantly increase production volumes, using less energy, for alternative sources of titanium. But an alternative, lower cost extraction route alone is insufficient to provide a sufficient step change in cost. It is the downstream processing of such powder into usable bulk products and shapes that will have a more significant effect on cost reduction.

Step 2: FAST-forge

Working with DSTL and Kennametal UK, the researchers have developed hybrid manufacturing processing technology that consolidates titanium powder, including machined swarf, into a bulk material in two solid-state steps, as opposed to the conventional forty or so processing steps.

This consolidation process exploits the Metalysis process with traditional precision hot forging processes to give the benefit of being a near net shape process. The powder can be shaped close to the desired component without the need for numerous expensive and process-limiting thermomechanical steps.

Step 3: Safran Landing Systems

In collaboration with Safran Landing Systems, formally known as Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, the group are now accelerating the FAST-forge process, combining with a one-step forging process developed at AFRC, to establish how it can be embodied in a new UK supply chain, developing cost effective manufacturing techniques and proving the capability in a landing gear application.

Sheffield Titanium Alloys Research (STAR)
The STAR group are using novel approaches in combination with process modelling to reduce the cost of titanium alloy components through new extraction routes, new alloy designs, novel solid state powder consolidation processes and improving conventional forging, extrusion and machining processes. STAR researchers are collaborating with world-leading aerospace, automotive and defence companies. The research directors - Dr Martin Jackson and Professor Brad Wynne - have 45 years combined experience in titanium alloy processing and characterisation.