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Titanium
Wednesday | 16 July, 2014 | 10:32 am

Titanium takes off

By Corinna Petry

Above: An ingot is transferred from a reheating furnace to a forging press at TIMET’s Toronto, Ohio, production facility.

Producers of this light, versatile metal have integrated into tight supply chains as they meet stringent but growing demand for jet engines

July 2014 - Developing global demographic trends—especially the growing business and middle classes in emerging economies that seek more travel—paired with the need to replace aging fleets, have led titanium producers to merge into integrated supply chains as they anticipate providing ever-smarter solutions to airplane builders.

Global titanium producers work directly with military and commercial jet engine makers to develop grades that best serve the most demanding applications in terms of strength-to-weight ratio and can withstand intense heat and pressure environments. The goal is to reduce weight of structural and engine components while transporting more passengers and cargo, all while reducing the volume of emissions that create a greenhouse effect around the planet.

Allegheny Technologies Inc. Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Harshman laid out the aerospace forecast in a late-April call with investors. 

“The projected demand increases from aerospace are being driven by unprecedented build rates of commercial aircraft,” he said. Boeing expects to increase its 787 production rate from 10 to 12 per month in two years, and to 14 units a month by 2019.

“Boeing also plans to increase the single-aisle 737 production from 42 to 47 per month by July 2017 and there is sufficient demand to further ramp up to 52 per month by the end of the decade,” Harshman said.

“Likewise, Airbus anticipates increasing its single-aisle A320 production from 42 per month to 50 per month by the end of the decade. Production of Model 350XWB, which is on schedule for its first delivery before the end of 2014, is projected to reach nearly nine per month by 2017,” Harshman continued.

“Commercial jet airline manufacturers require the materials and components that ATI produces for both the airframe and the jet engines that power the airframe,” he said.

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Exton, Pennsylvania-based Titanium Metals Corp. (TIMET) is also gearing up for the projected growth. ATI and TIMET are joined by Russia’s VSMPO-AVISMA as the three largest integrated titanium producers in the world, says Henry Seiner, TIMET’s vice president of business strategy. Seiner sits on the International Titanium Association’s board of directors and chairs its Aerospace Committee.

All three companies produce sponge, melt sponge and scrap, then forge and roll billets, bars, plates and coils, and “compete vigorously in the titanium business.”

Billets are the No. 1 product, which are forged into discs. “Then you’ll have both plates and bars that are used to make compressor and turbine blades as well as vanes. The biggest tonnage for engines is billet, followed by bar and plate,” Seiner explains. 

Grade Ti 6Al-4V is used for both engines and structures, but producers add other alloys—molybdenum, zirconium, tin, silicon, copper and iron—to make myriad compositions.

Physical demands

As for titanium’s physical properties, says Seiner, the metal has to be able to perform under high temperatures, fight creep resistance and life cycle fatigue. 

Titanium demonstrates its metallurgical strength in several ways. “In the hottest part of the engine, you will see more nickel-based superalloys,” says Seiner, “but where a combination of high-temperature performance and weight are factors, that’s where titanium wins out because it is so much lighter in strength-to-weight ratio.”

ATI’s Harshman listed his company’s proprietary metals—including ATI 425 titanium alloy, titanium aluminides, investment castings, fastener stock and extrusions—saying they all represent significant growth opportunities for ATI.

The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based producer continues to work with the airframe and engine manufacturers to develop new alloys and components to enable higher operating temperatures for improved fuel efficiency, lighter components, reduced emissions and longer engine component lives. “These attributes are important to reduce operating costs for airlines and improve the industry’s sustainability initiatives,” he explained.

Engine development

William Storey, president of Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Virginia-based aerospace industry analyst, says there are two new advanced technology engines being developed.

One is the Pratt & Whitney geared Turbo Fan W1000G and the other is the replacement for the CFM 56: LEAP, which is produced by CFM International, a consortium between GE Aviation and Snecma of France. Each of the engine designs is aimed at the single-aisle Airbus A320 series and Boeing 737 series.

“The current generation of 737s use CFM 56 exclusively and the new generation of 737 Max (planes) will exclusively use the LEAP. On the Airbus A320, there are engine choices for next generation NEO (new engine option). Airline customers can have the LEAP or Turbo Fan,” Storey says.

He calls it an equal battle, judging by the pace of orders for each of the new engines.

“Pratt & Whitney is farther along in development, [so the engine] has more running time. That’s when the bugs are worked out. It is on the verge of commercialization. 

“In a nutshell, P&W went with aerodynamic for its next-generation engine and the LEAP engine went with a thermodynamic solution. They are employing more new materials that can withstand higher temperature. Every degree higher you can take the engine makes it more efficient.”

GE Aviation, Storey says, is “pioneering carbon matrix, a nonmetallic, resin carbon fiber. Some of that will be used in engines. Both companies are also using additive manufacturing [commonly known as three-dimensional printing]. Bits and pieces are being manufactured in that way.

“Additive manufacturing forms complex shapes with very little waste. That technology and its adoption will advance over the next decade,” he predicts.

Integrated Ti resources

Titanium assets have been consolidated with other materials producers, forming pieces of larger integrated aerospace supply organizations. 

TIMET’s parent, Precision Castparts Corp., also owns nickel alloy producer Special Metals Corp., for example, and has its own forging and machining operations. Seiner says such integration has allowed suppliers to obtain and service long-term supply contracts. 

“We have a contract with Boeing, which buys all the material for their subcontractors. We sell titanium to TMX, a subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp, and we drop ship to forgers, machine houses, fabricators, etc.”

In the case of the engine manufacturers, “we have some [supply] deals directly with them and some with forgers in support of engine manufacturers. Pratt & Whitney has some deals with their own forgers, but also outside ones. We’ll get the purchase order from the other forger but the material is purchased under the Pratt contract.”

Seiner says TIMET was a backward integration play for Precision Castparts. The organization can now approach markets with unified solutions so customers don’t have to worry about managing the supply chain. If Boeing wants a part, it doesn’t have to negotiate with the mill, the forger, the machining house. TIMET can activate the supply chain faster.

ATI purchased Ladish Forge three years ago, thereby integrating resources. And VSMPO has a joint venture with Boeing in the Urals (a mountainous region in Russia) to machine large forgings.

Twenty years ago, says Seiner, there were no long-term agreements between titanium producers and OEMs. “They exist today as broad-based supply agreements.”

These include research and development and technical agreements at the infancy stage of development. TIMET, for example, has a research laboratory in Henderson, Nevada, that works closely with engine makers and Boeing to study future requirements. “We are working to improve existing alloys and make new ones with new characteristics,” says Seiner.

ATI today is gaining “content from our new alloys, parts and components that are specified for future generation jet engines,” Harshman told investors. Riding that wave, ATI has two large capital projects in the works: A $1.2 billion hot-rolling and processing facility (HRPF) in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, and its Rowley, Utah, primary titanium sponge facility.

The HRPF began hot commissioning in April and should launch commercial rollings in October on stainless, ferritic and austenitic grades, grain-oriented electrical steel, nickel-based and super alloys and titanium alloy sheet.

“The premium quality qualification program at Rowley remains on schedule,” Harshman said. “Coordinated with jet engine OEMs, the qualification program requires ATI to melt its sponge using all its melt technologies—vacuum arc remelt, electron beam and plasma arc melt—and then produce the output from the melts into defect-free round bar product.” 

He expects ATI’s products made from that sponge will qualify for jet engine applications by next year. MM

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