At the ready

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Advancement in such areas as additive manufacturing stand to benefit existing aircraft designs such as the C-130J Super Hercules, shown here at Japan’s Yokota Air Base. Photo: Yasuo Osakabe, 374th Airlift Wing/Public Affairs

U.S. military deploys superalloys, fabrication training and 3D printing to keep soldiers and citizens safe

November 2017 - North Korea is on a quest to develop carrier-killing ballistic missiles and has fired a number of them over the last few months. Tensions between the dictatorship and the United States begs the question: could North Korea sink a U.S. aircraft carrier or harm

U.S. troops stationed in South Korea or Japan?

The Department of Defense (DoD) continues to expand and innovate capabilities to keep this threat and myriad others at bay. FFJournal breaks down how efforts in metallurgical and fabrication research, revamped training, and updated vehicles and weapons will continue to protect the nation.

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The Pentagon upgrades vehicles, including the M1A2 Abrams tank, to provide the latest in technology to protect and arm soldiers. Photo: Staff Sgt. Julio Olivencia, 105th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard

Our first example is Lockheed Martin’s JASSM/JASSM-ER missile. It is a conventional steel-caged, air-to-ground, precision standoff weapon designed to destroy high-value, well-defended, fixed and relocatable long-range targets, says Joe Monaghen, communications lead for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control’s tactical missiles product line. The weapon has undergone multiple upgrades since early production and the manufacturer is building its 14th production lot of missiles. It recently received a $37.7 million contract for the continued development of a new wing design.

Research progresses within every branch of the armed forces, which seek to keep abreast of commercial innovations while conducting original research to design, engineer and fabricate stronger, lighter, more accurate tools and equipment to protect and arm warfighters.

At the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), vehicles like the Abrams M1A2 tank built by General Dynamics are rigorously tested before being deemed ready for use. The Army took delivery of the first of six tanks with improved force protection.

“We develop experimental prototypes to inform the Army about potential future capabilities,” says Alfred Grein, deputy executive director at the Center for Systems Integration (CSI).

Grein cites the attention given to lightweighting efforts after the Army’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Our vehicles increased in capacity and protection levels, but they also increased in weight. We did a great job of protecting soldiers but the vehicles grew vastly heavier than we ever anticipated them being,” Grein says. There’s a high cost associated with transporting and driving heavy equipment. “So we are looking at how new metal alloys as well as technology could be used to reduce vehicle weight.

“We’re always looking for the next breakthrough in lightweighting vehicles,” he adds. TARDEC is researching how methods like friction stir welding can benefit the military to lightweight its systems without compromising protection.

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Lockheed Martin's JASSM-ER missile drops from an airplane. Photo: Lockheed Martin

Fabrication techniques and manufacturing used for military applications often find their way into industrial applications and Arconic has a long history of manufacturing partnerships with the DoD.

“The single-piece forged aluminum hull is a great example of how we apply our advanced manufacturing processes to provide engineering solutions that increase survivability, reduce weight and enhance performance for military platforms,” says Margaret Cosentino, vice president of government affairs and defense at Arconic.

While Cosentino could not disclose specifics about the company’s collaborations with the Services’ labs, such as the Army’s Research and Development and Engineering Command’s laboratory, “we are focused particularly on applications that enhance integration of our survivability solutions into programs of record (POR).” A POR is a program that has been funded (approved) across Future Years Defense Program.

Arconic’s ArmX was developed for the Army for its next-generation ground combat and tactical vehicles. ArmX is a family of armor-grade alloys created to deliver best-in-class ballistic and blast performance. “It also dramatically reduces weight versus steel armor at equivalent blast threat survivability,” Cosentino says.

Superalloys’ role

Superalloy producer NioCorp Developments Ltd. is working with IBC Advanced Alloys to develop new alloys that incorporate scandium. Scandium is used in particular military technologies and aluminum-scandium alloys have many potential applications in aerospace and naval systems.

“But given that very little scandium is available for consumption—only 10 to 15 metric tons per year is produced globally—its use is constrained by limited supply,” says NicoCorp CEO and President Mark A. Smith. “Once reliable supply chains in the West are established, we believe scandium’s use in military technologies will expand rapidly.”

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Tiffany Sharp, an aircraft structural mechanic, wears a FORTIS exoskeleton while attaching rivets to a C-130J Super Hercules wing assembly. Photo: Lockheed Martin

Niobium is used to strengthen steel in most steel automobile chassis and other components, and is used in military vehicles and systems to strengthen armor and resist corrosion. “It is also vital to many protective armor systems for our men and women in uniform,” NioCorp’s Smith says.

The silvery metal’s potential for use in military/aerospace applications has been widely studied and tested. “The only thing  preventing its use in more defense systems in the West is supply,” Smith says. “We look forward to catalyzing much greater use of scandium in national defense applications when we start producing more than 100 metric tons per year of scandium product in Nebraska in a few short years.”

NioCorp is working with various DoD agencies to open a mine and processing facility in Elk Creek, Nebraska.

At Carpenter Technology Corp., Brian Malloy, vice president and chief commercial officer, says its newer bearing alloys—CarTech Ferrium C61 and CarTech Ferrium C64—provide greater operating ability to rotorcraft. A soft magnetic alloy, CarTech Hiperco 50, has helped to solve key challenges in missile-defense systems, allowing more efficient and practical operations, and reducing risk of failure, Malloy says.

Carpenter expects continued interest in high-strength alloys, like CarTech AerMet 100, which have superior fracture toughness and improved corrosion resistance over high-strength, low-alloy steels like CarTech 300M or CarTech 4340. “We also see increasing interest in soft magnetic alloys, which allow improved efficiencies.”

Machining and processing of superalloys can be difficult. Extra-high hardness materials might require different cutting tools or techniques, for example. “Temperature-sensitive alloys may require tighter control of hot working practices,” explains Malloy. “Certain other alloys may be highly brittle, requiring extra care if processing in thin and flat forms like strip.”

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Each Army-trained fabricator must earn a Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) and obtain advanced training at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Photo: Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Baker, 86th Airlift Wing

Elemental understanding

If metallurgists can better understand how each element within an alloy affects its overall properties, they can attempt to find the perfect chemistry to achieve the desired heat-handling tolerances. “We have computing power and databases at our disposal—including data analytics and atomic scale modeling—that we didn’t have before,” says Timothy Smith, a materials research engineer at NASA. Military clients like the U.S. Air Force, he says, “want to model and predict every step of the superalloy development process when printing with powder, for example. The key is how to manipulate and push the temperatures these superalloys can endure as high as we can.”

In the past, Smith continues, “we didn’t have a complete understanding of how the 13 or 14 elements that make up a superalloy as a whole contributed to its high-temperature properties.” But researchers now can view alloys at an atomic level, and are able to watch how these metals react at high temperatures through microscopes.

“Deformation mechanisms occurring at the atomic level determine how superalloys will perform at high temperatures. Jet engines will be cheaper to run if they can handle the heat better,” NASA’s Smith says of research aims.

Specialized skills

When training soldiers for fabrication work, each must earn a Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) and obtain advanced training at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. TARDEC’s fabrication team consists of Army civilians and veterans. “Every member is highly skilled,” says James Douglas, supervisor at CSI Welding/Assembly/Paint division.

When fabricating for the military, each worker must adhere to rules civilian welders follow, plus be skilled with both armor and non-armor materials.

“There is a strong emphasis put on weld quality and workmanship due to the nature of the products we produce” to meet ballistic standards and strength requirements, Douglas says. “Because we work on prototypes [for TARDEC], our requirements change often. We use off-the-shelf welding equipment.”

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Faustson's David DeLaTorre, programmer/CNC 5-axis mill/EDM

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Maintaining and repairing military equipment is arduous. In Naval shipyards, shipfitters repairing and reconditioning vessels must often carry heavy equipment. To help lighten the load and prevent fatigue, Lockheed Martin worked with ROBRADY to develop its FORTIS Exoskeleton. Made from high-strength grade 6063-T862 aluminum and weighing 27 lbs., the gear is designed to help carry loads.

“The FORTIS allows workers to use heavy tools such as grinders, sanders and drills as if they are weightless,” says Keith Maxwell, Exoskeleton Technologies program manager, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

What began as a powered exoskeleton evolved into an unpowered version that moves with the body and focuses on load transfer in an industrial setting, he says. FORTIS can prevent 75 percent of muscle fatigue and can increase user productivity by as much as 27 times.

Additive effect

Advancements in additive manufacturing (AM) are “fast and furious,” says Don Larsen, vice president of R&D and general manager, advanced manufacturing at Arconic. “AM will never completely displace traditionally manufactured products,” but as the company gains experience in manufacturing and customer applications, “3D printed parts will make up an increasingly larger proportion of parts on an aircraft.”

ATI Partners is working with GE Aviation to develop meltless titanium alloys for 3D printing. The powder could foster new capabilities, especially in the aerospace sector, where quick-turnaround parts must adhere to strict certification processes for use in military applications.

Arconic’s Cosentino adds, “what is really exciting now is we are combining advanced manufacturing in monolithic structures with our additive manufacturing capabilities.”

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Ferroniobium is the commercial form of niobium and is used to strengthen steel and prevent corrosion. Photo: NioCorp Developments Ltd.

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Using “hybrid” applications like Ampliforge, Arconic can create a part more rapidly and more affordably, while qualifying a finished forging rather than the printed part.

3D printing is ideal for complex geometries. With a presence on or around every planet in the solar system, Arvada, Colorado-based Faustson Tool Corp. has worked on projects with both NASA and DoD to tackle parts not possible elsewhere.

“We take some super difficult parts—parts that until they got to us were deemed not possible—and we figure out how to manufacture them,” says Heidi Hostetter, vice president and industry chair for the Alliance for the Development of Additive Processing Technologies, an organization that solves challenges in metal AM using data informatics-driven approaches.

Faustson has built parts for the military and commercial aircraft builders, including parts for the F-35 program, using its 5-axis machining and multi-axis EDM 3D printing system. Using an M2 Multilaser machine from Concept Laser, Faustson can print superalloys for otherwise hard-to-manufacture parts.

The shop also builds parts using cobalt-chromium grades, including Ti6A14V as well as Inconel 718. The company recently printed a cooling panel for the Air Force ground-based scramjet engine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

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Staff Sgt. William Mitchell, aerospace propulsion craftsman, files a damaged section of a turbine fan at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. To avoid corrosion, the titanium part must be repaired with a file of the same metallic composition. Photo: Senior Airman Joshua Crawley, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing

Faustson is creating parts for missile detection systems for Northrop Grumman and works with Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Woodward and others.

“We’re able to work with difficult superalloys, including Inconels, magnesium, tungsten—alloys that are hard to manufacture for a [host] of reasons,” Hostetter says. “We try to print 80 percent of the part and leave 20 percent to post-operations including milling, temperature processing [stress relief] and etching processing.”

Newer technologies are the answer to difficult-to-build parts. “Defense and aerospace tend to be archaic designs at times,” Hostetter says. “We think of it as cutting edge but you can’t just change specifications on parts and move on to the next thing. It’s a long process from design to production and once you have locked in the processes to produce these parts, you have flow down requirements that must be honored throughout the life of the part.”

Meanwhile, NASA is printing two metal alloys and has successfully produced a bi-metallic rocket igniter. The part is complex, making 3D printing an ideal solution.

Majid Babai, advanced manufacturing chief for the Materials & Processes Laboratory at Marshall Space Flight Center, tells FFJournal that the purpose of printing copper chromium zirconium and Inconel 625 is “to take advantage of different characteristics of each alloy where needed.” Copper alloys provide heat conductivity, while Inconel reinforces resistance to high pressure.

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From left: Jessica Cowden, communications manager; Sumer Sonrensen Bain, chief of programs and operations for Manufacturer's Edge; Heidi Hostetter, vice president, Faustson Tool Corp.; and Alicia Svaldi, founder, owner and president of Faustson Tool. Photo: K. Dill

The team at NASA first printed an engine igniter because it is small and could readily be tested at the Marshall lab. NASA and DMG MORI started working together three years ago to tackle bi-metallic components and additive manufacturing.

“Yes, there is military potential for this technology,” Babai says. “We have had discussions with the DoD on potentials.”

“The industry wants to use Inconel 718 for 3D printing,” NASA’s Smith notes, but “there isn’t a lot of alloy development in that area—yet. Part of the technology breakthroughs we’re making is by taking existing, older alloys and incorporating them into [AM].”

DoD is also looking at how printing multiple metals will expand design and fabrication options. “Instead of having to figure out how to weld Inconel to copper, it might be possible to just 3D print off the copper with whatever joining metal you want,” he says. “We can now look at creating parts that would not have been possible using conventional methods.

“It’s an exciting time to be a material scientist,” Smith says. “The alloy characterization ability at the atomic scale for modeling efforts, the computer power we get to work with now—it’s so different from even just five years ago.

“It’s going to be eye opening,” he continues. “There are a lot of variables in play with superalloys during post-processing heat treatment tests and these new models will hopefully offer big insights.” FFJ


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