Aircraft builders and their suppliers are on course for a long, profitable ascent, with record volumes of orders for new commercial jets stretching over the coming decade. Airbus and Boeing are setting up new production lines, and supply chains are forming with manufacturers and fabricators adding the skills and capabilities to produce the parts and systems the OEMs will require. In metalcasting, there is no clearer proof of this activity than Alcoa, which has earmarked $125 million to update and expand investment casting at two plants in Indiana and Virginia; it intends to increase capacity for producing larger, nickel-superalloy castings for jet engines, including those destined for high-volume Airbus and Boeing programs.
To supply Airbus or Boeing, or even smaller jet builders like Bombardier and Embraer, a metalcaster must be prepared to meet cost and production volume targets, and stringent quality standards. Many foundries and diecasters are anxious for that opportunity.
But, there is an alternative to those commercial aircraft programs, one where all the target points are more acute: product volumes are smaller, cost pressures are greater, and expectations for product quality and precision are higher. It’s the defense aerospace market, a venue so demanding that for one high-profile project the only investment casters available to supply Lockheed Martin were two ambitious “start-ups.”
Among hundreds of defense aerospace programs the most newsworthy surely is the one Lockheed helms for the F-35 Lightning II, a single-engine fighter jet with stealth capability that emerged from the earlier selection process for a Joint Strike Fighter. It is a combat aircraft capable of ground attack, reconnaissance, and air-defense missions. The first series of jets are due for deployment in late 2015 for the U.S. Marine Corps, to be followed in subsequent years by versions for the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the U.K. Royal Air Force. Nine other allied nations’ defense programs are involved in the development as future customers too, while the list of suppliers numbers in the thousands.
The F-35 program is no bottomless government slush fund, however. As with all defense programs, it is under severe cost pressures, so much so that Lockheed and two other larger suppliers earlier this year agreed to freeze unit costs at current levels through 2020. By agreeing to this “Blueprint for Affordability” Lockheed set the tone for its F-35 program suppliers.
According to data published by Lockheed, the current costs for the F-35 range from $98 million to $116 million per jet, depending on the design variant. “An F-35A purchased in 2018 and delivered in 2020 will be $85 million, which is the equivalent of $75 million in today’s dollars,” according to Lockheed earlier this year.
The cost-containment efforts can have no effect on engineering precision or product quality, though, which only adds to the complexity of manufacturing an overall design that incorporates advanced materials, high-tech systems, and control technologies. Thus, one of the defining subsystems of the F-35 program is the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) — a multi-functioning system for air-to-air and air-to surface sighting of targets. The system is mounted into the jet’s fuselage, below the nose and protected by a sapphire window, and linked to the integrated central computer through a high-speed fiber-optic interface.
Even as much of the EOTS design that is not classified is difficult to comprehend, but its function relies on its placement in a gimbal housing, one that is lightweight but strong — which is why that structure is formed in a beryllium-aluminum alloy. “The specific stiffness of beryllium-aluminum is off the charts, and I don’t believe there are many other materials that compare with it,” explained Ray White, president of IBC Engineered Materials, which has operated an investment-casting foundry in Wilmington, MA, for three years. That development was much defined by Lockheed’s determination to optimize the cost of its F-35 EOTS.
“The main parameter (of beryllium alloys), the key material property that designers value is specific stiffness,” confirmed James Yurko, v.p.-R&D and Technology for Materion Beryllium & Composites, a company long active in producing beryllium alloys for defense programs — and lately also an investment caster. The specific stiffness of beryllium-aluminum, which he further explained is the material’s elastic module divided by its density, remains the same whether the article being produced is a machined part or a casting — and that knowledge set Lockheed on its mission.
As originally designed, the EOTS housing was machined from a large block of beryllium-aluminum that had to be produced with powder metallurgy, followed by hot isostatic pressing, a time-consuming and expensive process. Converting the design to investment cast parts offered savings to Lockheed, and challenge to metalcasting process designers.
Since that decision in 2010, both IBC Engineered Materials and Materion have installed and started new investment casting capability and are tightly involved with the OEM refining the casting designs and perfecting the production process.
Raising Performance, Lowering Cost
IBC Engineered Materials is the successor to Beralcast Corp., a Concord, MA, company that IBC Advanced Alloys bought and added to its portfolio of specialty metal products, having identified the family of Beralcast alloys as high-performance or lower-cost replacement for numerous cast products, or products milled from powder-met ingots. The F-35 EOTS housing is the primary example.
Since establishing the new operation in Wilmington in 2011 — including a large, properly ventilated vacuum-induction melting furnace — White detailed that IBC EM has devoted its primary efforts to becoming aerospace quality-certified. “When we left Concord, for all intents and purposes we did not have any quality system in place, such as ISO, and to do business with companies like Lockheed we need to have an aerospace quality-certification, AS9100C, and it’s a difficult quality certification to receive. We went through that whole process, more or less starting from scratch.”
That sequence took about a year, and both White and IBC Advanced Alloys CEO Anthony Dutton agreed it was satisfying to have done it so quickly. The foundry also achieved ISO 9001:2008 certification. “That was the first step for us doing business with the aerospace big boys,” White allowed. “Lockheed in particular.”
Going further, IBC EM undertook a separate certification program with Lockheed verify its material qualifications for the F-35 EOTS system, and having passed that it was awarded a “low-rate initial production contract” for the beryllium-aluminum castings it first set out to supply. Production has begun for the casting to form the EOTS azimuth gimbal housing, with initial deliveries beginning later this year.
Over the three years since start-up, IBC EM also expanded its staffing, adding technical expertise for the aerospace programs in which it expects to operate.
In respect to its production capabilities, the IBC EM team are tight-lipped about additions and expansions, but they are bullish on the results of a working arrangement with Nu-Cast Inc., another aerospace investment caster, announced last winter.
Nu-Cast, which has a foundry in Londonderry, NH, is notable as the proprietor of an investment-casting shell system it states produces wax patterns (from tooling or via prototypes) for near-net-shape components. Ray White was circumspect in describing how Nu-Cast is influencing his foundry’s operation, but he praised that company’s “knowledge base that goes back 25 or 30 years in the investment casting industry.”
The non-binding memorandum between the foundries defines a working arrangement that the IBC EM executives believe may be expanded in the future.
The relationship with Lockheed appears to be even more representative of the foundry’s success to date. The castings being produced represent “one of the most critical in the EOTS system,” noted White. “And, it’s also the heaviest, largest, most difficult component to make from a beryllium-aluminum casting. The advantages of converting this particular component to a casting far outweigh those of any other component in the system.”
He recounted how the nature of the beryllium-aluminum alloy — “the wide solidification range between the beryllium and the aluminum” — makes it especially difficult to work with. Significant investments in process control have made the process more manageable, but White emphasized that the extensive material certification routine with Lockheed had demonstrated not only IBC EM’s capabilities as an investment caster, but as a partner to an important aerospace OEM.
That will matter in the long-term, as the F-35 production program is seen running for many years. But for IBC Engineered Materials, the experience and recognition for its work with Lockheed will have derivative benefits.
“If you look at the adoption of commercial technologies, right across from telecom to automotive, sporting goods, you name it, there is very often a high-level trickledown process before it reaches a commercial application,” Anthony Dutton observed. “Aerospace is no different.”
IBC EM has identified “precision manufacturing” markets wherein its capabilities with beryllium-aluminum investment casting offer new opportunities. “Precision manufacturing is anything wherein a manufacturer has to make something to extraordinarily high tolerances,” Dutton explained, “and so the relative stiffness that beryllium offers allows the manufacturers of, in one case semiconductor production systems, to achieve that: But we see opportunities in robotics and a whole host of areas where tolerances are extremely important, and people are working to millionths of an inch. You need to have a material that can withstand those sorts of tolerances, and that is exactly what beryllium does.
Renewing Materials Expertise
Materion Beryllium & Composites’ ability to position itself as an investment casting supplier to Lockheed’s F-35 program is not quite the result of establishing new production capability, but of renewing some technologies with greater attention to the quality of the finished article, and the service with which it is produced and delivered.
Materion, the former Brush Engineered Materials, has a legacy as a primary source for beryllium and beryllium alloys. Jim Yurko was recruited to Materion in 2010, bringing academic and professional expertise in materials science and solidification at a time when the company was reviving its focus on the beryllium-aluminum casting alloys it had developed and licensed previously.
“Materion is proud to be the original developer of the aluminum-beryllium-composite alloy investment casting process,” he explained, a process that regained attention for its cost-saving potential, compared to products that relied on powder-metallurgy alloys. In 2010, the company began a three-year effort to reemphasize its cast products, “confident that we were going to significantly improve it from where the technology had been previously.”
The Elmore, OH, casting operation was the site of several capital investments to improve production efficiency.
“We invested in much better data acquisition control and monitoring equipment,” Yurko detailed, “and because we focused on the ability to sell a final product we had to invest in our secondary processing – from degating and machining to coating technology, to how we do quality control and inspection.”
More than that, Materion invested in rapid prototyping technology, adopted new solidification modeling methods, and developed capabilities in 3D printing, “so our ability to go from receiving a part model to delivering a part is very fast,” he reported.
Also, approximately $1 million was invested in 2012 to increase work space in expectation of more vacuum-induction casting capacity, providing the opportunity to take on more programs.
Re-emphasizing beryllium-aluminum casting is paying off, not only with Lockheed’s F-35 business, but in a sense because of it: “This part has challenged us to go after components that we didn’t think were feasible, or possible,” according to the vice president. But, having said that he also described the EOTS part as “the most difficult and technically demanding of our current cast products.
“It’s a significantly large part,” he noted, “and the fact that we were limited in our ability to modify the design is a challenge that we are proud to have met.”
Because the EOTS housing had to be converted from a machined part Materion was able to contribute its own material and casting process expertise, but Yurko credited Lockheed for its input, too. Their engineers have helped determine how to adapt the design from the PM-derived material to the cast alloy, without compromising the performance of the overall system.
The efforts have been aided by a “strategic partnership” that Materion formed a year ago with Aristo Cast Inc., an investment caster in Almont, MI. “We have vacuum melting and casting and many of the secondary operations in house,” Yurko confirmed. “We have all the equipment for shell removal, gate removal, and machining, radiography, CMM, mechanical testing, so that allows us to finish the components.”
But, because beryllium-aluminum is highly reactive, preparing and producing the shell is especially critical for the investment casting process. Being a more established investment caster, Aristo Cast was ready with a process that works well with Materion’s alloys, so it produces and delivers shell molds for the EOTS.
The relative proximity of the two foundries is an advantage, too. Yurko is highly complimentary of Aristo Cast’s products and he appreciates the input of knowledgeable colleagues there. “When you outsource a shell there are things that you want in a partner and they have more than exceeded our expectations,” he said, adding that Aristo Cast has helped accelerate Materion into the market.
In the course of 2014 Materion has landed several more contracts from defense and aerospace vendors that take advantage of the high specific stiffness, the net shape, and the lightweight properties of its beryllium-aluminum castings, and the foundry is in the process of qualifying for several more programs, he said.
But, it’s plain that the Lockheed contract is the foundation for Materion’s progress. Yurko assessed: “They are a very discerning customer when it comes to quality requirements and certification, and so I think that working with them has improved our ability to be a prime contractor of components, which has not always been our area. We are a metals producer.
“But, with a project of this magnitude, we’ve already invested a lot to be capable, and it’s given us even more confidence in pursuing technologies and improvements that will drive down cost further through improved efficiencies,” he predicted.