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United States Hardware

An 8,000 Ton Giant Made the Jet Age Possible 307

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the moar-power dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Tim Heffernan writes that when 'The Fifty,' as it's known in company circles, broke down three years ago, there was talk of retiring it for good. Instead, Alcoa decided to overhaul their 50,000-ton, 6-story high forging press, now scheduled to resume service early this year. 'What sets the Fifty apart is its extraordinary scale,' writes Heffernan. 'Its 14 major structural components, cast in ductile iron, weigh as much as 250 tons each; those yard-thick steel bolts are also 78 feet long; all told, the machine weighs 16 million pounds, and when activated its eight main hydraulic cylinders deliver up to 50,000 tons of compressive force.' The Fifty could bench-press the battleship Iowa, with 860 tons to spare, but it's the Fifty's amazing precision — its tolerances are measured in thousandths of an inch—that gives it such far-reaching utility. Every manned US military aircraft now flying uses parts forged by the Fifty, as does every commercial aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing making the Jet Age possible. 'On a plane, a pound of weight saved is a pound of thrust gained—or a pound of lift, or a pound of cargo,' writes Heffernan. 'Without the ultra-strong, ultra-light components that only forging can produce, they'd all be pushing much smaller envelopes.' The now-forgotten Heavy Press Program (PDF), inaugurated in 1950 and completed in 1957, resulted in four presses (including the Fifty) and six extruders — giant toothpaste tubes squeezing out long, complex metal structures such as wing ribs and missile bodies. 'Today, America lacks the ability to make anything like the Heavy Press Program machines,' concludes Heffernan, adding that 'The Fifty' will be supplying bulkheads through 2034 for the Joint Strike Fighter. 'Big machines are the product of big visions, and they make big visions real. How about a Heavy Fusion Program?'"
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An 8,000 Ton Giant Made the Jet Age Possible

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  • now technology (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @05:25AM (#40003231)

    We see various technologies come and go, one hit wonders, ephemeral vapourware and promises of the next big thing.

    When I read this, it made the engineer in me happy to think some things last longer.

  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @05:34AM (#40003261)

    This thing is neat and maybe that's the best way to do things. But I thought Boeing was talking about additive manufacturing. I know they have ways of making titanium parts using additive manufacturing. I don't know if they're as strong as forged parts. But once that's cracked this forging process should become obsolete in aerospace. After all, why use solid pieces when you can have pieces articulated down to the level of bone. Fine latices of metal interwoven to build parts that have strength to weight ratios similar to what we see in nature. Sure, metal is stronger then bone. But bone is made out of relatively weak materials. If you build something with the same structure out of metal you could get something very strong and very light.

    Still, very neat machine. I wonder if the Chinese have such a thing and it sounded like the Germans might?

    It would be interesting to know if these machines are critical to a heavy industry economy.

  • While in many applications it may be possible to replace metal with composites, there are always going to be corner cases. It wouldn't be too big a deal to lose one of these 50-kt machines, but losing the capability worldwide is another matter.

    I'm reminded of a story a while back [slashdot.org] about there being only one company worldwide that can cast nuclear reactor vessels.

  • by damburger (981828) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @07:22AM (#40003639)

    The UK company is mentioned as being build up with cheap government loans, which is a half truth.

    Yes, they are getting cheap loans, but only begrudgingly and only after the government had canceled a much larger loan, aimed at letting them produce "ultra large" forgings that few other places in the world can manage, mostly for the nuclear industry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheffield_Forgemasters#2010_expansion [wikipedia.org]

    But of course, we have to spend billions turning London into a bland commercial fortress for the Olympics. This is not that surprising; money that is meant to be spend on a national level has a nasty habit of being spent within a few miles of London.

    But hey, I'm sure the Coalition know what they are doing. I'm sure putting missile launchers of peoples roofs and forbidding British beer brewers from selling stuff in many of the capitals pubs is a far more sensible economic investment than developing world class forging capabilities.

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @08:49AM (#40004123)
    In fact, the nodular cast iron of which many engine parts are made, is itself a composite. The iron (a metal) contains nodules of graphite (carbon) which are roughly spherical and give it a combination of strength and ductility. Although it isn't as strong as a steel forging, nodular cast iron is very versatile and can be cast easily. When I was involved in a British Government kickstarter project over 20 years ago, one of the key objectives for future manufacturing that was identified was a way of producing cast parts in strong materials economically to near finished size, i.e. to eliminate the need for forging.
  • by dpilot (134227) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @08:54AM (#40004179) Homepage Journal

    This is what I've been wondering about with 3D printing... From what I've seen, current additive 3D printing has been with plastic, though I'll admit that my knowledge is sketchy.

    Seems to me that it would be a simple matter to use 3D printing to build a model for traditional metal casting methods. But as mentioned, none of that gives you the strength of forged metal. So is there a way to combine 3D printing with casting and some sort of "generic" forging process?

  • 8,000 or 50,000? (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @09:04AM (#40004261)

    Another undecipherable /. summary. What's the 8,000-ton thingy mentioned in the title? Nowhere to be seen in the summary. On the other hand the summary talks about this 50,000-ton thingy absent in the title...

  • Re:now technology (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @12:13PM (#40006313)

    I've always loved the older technologies for their ability to just keep going. In fact, just a few days ago, I finished cleaning up an old 1950's Remington typewriter. It hasn't been touched in decades in my parents' damp, cold basement, was covered with more dust and grime than I thought was physically possible, but a lot of hours of cleaning later, and every key still works absolutely perfectly. Found a place online that still sells ribbons, so I've got it typing again. And odds are, unless it's dropped from something high up (and it even has a good chance of surviving that, since it's over 30 pounds of stainless steel), it'll probably last well until after I'm gone.

    The new technology may be awesome for what it can do, but the old technology is awesome for what it can survive and keep going through.

    Captcha: "keyboard". I don't think I've ever seen a more fitting captcha.

  • Re:now technology (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tlhIngan (30335) <<ten.frow> <ta> <todhsals>> on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @12:45PM (#40006773)

    I've always loved the older technologies for their ability to just keep going. In fact, just a few days ago, I finished cleaning up an old 1950's Remington typewriter. It hasn't been touched in decades in my parents' damp, cold basement, was covered with more dust and grime than I thought was physically possible, but a lot of hours of cleaning later, and every key still works absolutely perfectly. Found a place online that still sells ribbons, so I've got it typing again. And odds are, unless it's dropped from something high up (and it even has a good chance of surviving that, since it's over 30 pounds of stainless steel), it'll probably last well until after I'm gone.

    The new technology may be awesome for what it can do, but the old technology is awesome for what it can survive and keep going through.

    Well, the old technology is like that because it's overdesigned to be like that. It survives because all the parts are stronger than they need to be (material science being what it was then, and quality variance between batches was probably a lot higher) because they had to - unlike modern manufacturing processes where we can get remarkably consistent raw materials due to smeltters carefully controlling the alloys. When your inputs are of varying quality, you compensate by overdesigning. And yes, it happens today in the semiconductor industry - it's remarkably hard to produce a consistent product so transistors and such are overdesigned to compensate (we can spec chips to run slower, we avoid use of passive components (it's difficult to get resistors/capacitors to come out with less than a 20% tolerance in silicon - there are many "equivalent" circuits done using transistors which are easier to match), etc.

    Plus, we also have survivor bias - the "old stuff" survives because we threw out the crap that failed long ago. Heck, your typewriter may be a victim of that - it's just you got one of the few good ones. When things were cranked out by the thousands, it happens.

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