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Hurling Chunks of Metal into Dies

High energy metal forming allows the nearly impossible to happen

by Julian Edgar

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Shaped metal panels are all around us. The bodies of our cars are made almost completely from metal panels that have been forced into complex curves. Inside our consumer goods there are steel and aluminium panels that have been pressed into brackets and formed into intricate shapes. Aircraft, toys, kitchenware – the list goes on.

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And almost all of these metal components started out as flat sheet, before being stamped into shape by huge presses. Typically, these hydraulic tools crush the sheet between male and female dies, using enormous pressure applied relatively slowly to push the metal into its new shape.

But instead of doing it this way, what about using explosive forces to force the metal into just one half of the die? Not only do you reduce the number of (very expensive) dies, but if the movement can be made to happen fast enough, the metal can even alter the way in which it behaves, acting as if it’s got a lot more flexibility.

The technology is called high energy metal forming, and despite the fact that in various forms it’s been around for decades, it is currently one of the hottest areas being explored in a range of industries.

There are three ways in which sheet metal can be forced into a die using high energy techniques.

1. Electrohydraulic Forming

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In this approach, the sheet metal is clamped into place over the female die, with the die and metal submerged under water or oil. Two electrodes are placed to one side of the work-piece and the current from a large capacitor bank is then discharged through them. A spark jumps the gap, creating huge shockwaves in the water or oil, and these shockwaves smash the metal into the shape of the die.

A similar approach can also be taken in the shaping of tubes, with the shockwaves initiated within the tube and an external die used.

This approach was first used in the 1940s, and was developed further in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily in the aerospace field.

2. Explosive Forming

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Even more dramatic is explosive forming, which uses the same basic approach as electrohydraulic forming - but replaces the arc discharge with explosives. The explosion creates a shockwave which causes the metal to take the shape of the die.

3. Electromagnetic Forming

Electromagnetic forming is the only high-energy technique to gain widespread acceptance. In this approach, electrical charge from a bank of capacitors is passed through a coil. This develops a strong magnetic field, which in turn develops eddy currents in the nearby workpiece. These eddy currents develop their own magnetic field, which causes a mutual repulsion between the workpiece and the coils. The coils are placed so that the metal is repelled at great speed into the die, so shaping it.

This approach can be used to form both shaped cylinders (the coils are placed within the cylinder) and also more conventional pressings that start as flat sheet.

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Electromagnetic forming is being used by Boeing to swage end-fittings onto torque tubes in its 777 aircraft. One loudspeaker manufacturer is also using electromagnetic forming to shape speaker cones from 0.002-inch thick titanium sheet.

The velocities with which this type of metal forming occurs are very high - up to 200 metres per second (720 km/h) can be used.

One major advantage of high energy metal forming is that because the shaping of the material occurs so quickly, the material can alter in its metallurgical characteristics, becoming much more ductile. This change in characteristics is known as ‘hyperplasticity.’ Aluminium, for example, has poor formability at slow velocities, tending to tear at sharp corners and bends. However, high-energy forming can overcome these problems.

One approach is to use a hybrid of conventional forming methods to gain the general shape, with high energy forming used to complete the product. This has the advantage of reducing the capital cost of the high-energy equipment – using electromagnetic forming to produce large panels requires big, expensive capacitor banks.

Other benefits of electromagnetic forming are:

  • Reduced number of operations

  • Improved strain distribution

  • Less wrinkling

  • Controlled springback

  • Less reliance on lubricants

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A vivid demonstration of the reduction in wrinkling that can occur as forces increase can be seen here. A male die in the shape of a truncated cone was used, with sheets of aluminium thrown over it by electromagnetic means. Different capacitor discharge energies were used, resulting in different impact velocities. As launch energy increased, wrinkling was startlingly reduced.

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Another demonstration of what can be achieved with the technique is shown here. Aluminium rings were compressed onto a mandrel only half the original diameter of the ring. With sufficient energy, the ring could be massively reduced in size without wrinkling.

So Why Isn’t Everyone Doing It?

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If high energy metal forming is good, why isn’t it far more widespread in industrial applications? Some researchers in the field, in a paper entitled Opportunities in High-Velocity Forming of Sheet Metal, pose the same question. They answer it in this way:

Suppose that a classically educated, but sheltered, engineer is asked to devise a procedure to drive nails into wood. If he or she is unaware of the concept of the hammer, the engineer is likely to develop something that looks like a modern press. The device might be built so that it precisely aligns a nail normal to the piece of wood and has an actuator that moves at a controlled displacement rate (possibly with high force) and drives the nail slowly into the board.

Other engineers might applaud this approach as it offers much control and precision. By way of added improvements, the engineering community would work on issues such as the stability and buckling of the nail as well as the challenge of making a truly portable nail driver. Over time, others would improve on this approach. Standards would be developed and the viability of many companies might become dependent on its continuation.

Now imagine another engineer suggesting that this common but somewhat elegant process could be replaced by simply banging on the head of the nail to drive it into the wood. While this has many advantages in terms of simplicity, cost, stability of the nail and portability, it might encounter some resistance as it appears some control over the process is lost and there might be a substantial learning curve in developing good hammers and the skills needed to wield them properly.

Fortunately the hammer was developed long before conventional engineering practices!

In some sense this analogy parallels the state of sheet metal forming technology today. Forming typically is accomplished with the motion of massive matched tools with precise control of static forces and slow displacement rates. In effect, we now are suggesting that much might be accomplished by hurling chunks of metal into dies.

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