Creating a Step-Change in the Economics of Titanium

FAST STEP 3 (Field Assisted Sintering Technology for Swarf Titanium to Engine Parts in 3 steps) is a £1.8M collaborative research and development project - part-funded by Innovate UK - to reduce the cost of titanium alloy components. Lower-cost access to lightweight titanium alloys will be a game-changer for the automotive industry, enabling manufacturers to reduce the emissions their cars create, while keeping them affordable.

A person in orange protective clothing and gloves holding a handful of metal machining waste, standing in front of piles of machining waste

Titanium’s exceptional properties make it a highly desirable structural metal, but the current high price excludes its use from all but the most demanding applications, such as an aircraft’s gas turbine engines. Royce researchers will help to reduce the cost of titanium alloy components to enable their use in automotive applications. Affordable titanium will be game changing for the automotive sector when it comes to reducing emissions and vehicle lightweighting, with both internal combustion engines and electrification.

The automotive sector does not currently use titanium alloys, other than in the highest performance and most exclusive vehicles, due to the significant associated costs. However, they face ever increasing challenges in meeting emission targets and reducing vehicle mass. Titanium alloys can be part of the solution, if the cost can be reduced.

Global air traffic is expected to increase by 4.7% per year between now and 2035. This represents a doubling in the number of aircraft needed in the next 15 years, which means over 35,000 new passenger planes will be required. The use of titanium alloys in the commercial aerospace sector has also increased; from ~15t to ~30t per aircraft in the last 20 years. However, manufacturing of aerospace titanium components can generate substantial material wastage, up to 70%, mostly as swarf/turnings from machining processes.

In the coming decades the aerospace sector will generate vast and increasing quantities of titanium alloy swarf, which is effectively a waste product. The FAST STEP 3 project will show it is possible, with appropriate cleaning and grading, to recycle this waste swarf as a feedstock for the FAST-forge process (developed at The University of Sheffield) to produce near-net-shape parts that are then lightly machined into finished components. This combination of low-cost feedstock with cost-effective processing means affordable titanium alloy components will become a reality.

The FAST STEP 3 consortium is comprised of:

  • Lead partner Bentley Motors Ltd, the most sought-after luxury car brand in the world, and a potential end user of titanium alloy components produced during the FAST STEP 3 project.
  • The Northern Automotive Alliance, an independent not-for-profit organisation providing support for all companies within the automotive sector in the North of England, will provide the project management.
  • Transition International Ltd, specialises in the handling and cleaning of titanium alloy swarf, will utilise their expertise and facilities to provide optimised raw material feedstock to the project.
  • The University of Sheffield’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, one of the leading materials departments in the UK, developed the concepts for FAST STEP 3 and will undertake the fundamental science, whilst refining the process window, developing process models, and defining limits of the technology on the small and large scale; including utilising the new Royce FCT HP D 250/C semi-continuous FAST equipment.
  • W.H. Tildesley Ltd, with over 140 years of experience in the drop forging industry, will develop the forging dies and schedules to enable titanium alloy swarf FAST billets to be forged to components.
  • Force Technology Ltd, established to develop and innovate high-precision and high-duty springs, will support post-forge processing as well as inspection, quality control, and functional bench testing.
Two engineers in lab coats seen through a glass-walled machine with tangles of wires sticking out

Access to equipment provided by the Henry Royce Institute is proving vital for this project: the small-scale FCT FAST furnace and the new large-scale semi-continuous FAST furnace are being used extensively.

The FAST STEP 3 project will manufacture and functionally bench test 4 engine components of increasing complexity, from both a manufacturing and performance perspective, with the strength/fatigue properties required in automotive applications.

The aim is to demonstrate the production of titanium alloy components at 20% of the current cost and with minimal wastage. Longer term, titanium alloy automotive components will provide prestige to high-end vehicles, reduced fuel consumption and emissions, decreased energy use for manufacturing, and a beneficial life-cycle analysis through recycling a waste product.

The FAST STEP 3 project also aims to develop a new UK supply chain to exploit this technology; allowing diversification for companies within the traditional metal manufacturing sector.

A grayscale image of a bag of swarf with two formed components sticking out

This project is about developing a new disruptive manufacturing process and a new UK based supply chain, securing UK IP from raw material to end product. This will be the first demonstration of recycling titanium alloy swarf into high-value automotive engine components. It will assist the automotive sector to achieve cost-effective lightweighting for automotive engines to lower emissions (CO2, NOx, particulates), initially for low volumes, with potential to move into higher volumes applications. Automotive production is anticipated to start 3-4 years after the end of the project.

The FAST-forge process is highly tolerant of feedstock characteristics and chemistry, and readily adaptable to producing a wide range of shaped billets. This provides growth opportunities and UK job retention for the developed supply chain, not only in automotive, but also in the wider advanced manufacturing sectors of offshore, rail, aerospace, non-automotive engines and defence.

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