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Rain Stops Play at Farnborough

The Farnborough International Airshow, the world’s largest biennial exhibition for aerospace, defence and space opened on Monday July 11; but not, alas, to the usual fanfare of large orders from the Emirates.

Unfortunately, it was to a new type of English weather; one which included the wrong kind of lightning and the wrong kind of typhoon. As a result, the displays of the F35 Lightning and the Eurofighter Typhoon were postponed.

Among the 1,500 exhibition stands in the halls, perhaps the most interesting theme for Metal Bulletin readers, compared with 2014, was the dynamic consolidation in the superalloys industry. This had kicked off around the time of the last show with Alcoa’s acquisition of Firth Rixson for $2.85 billion to consolidate with its Howmet assets. At the time, the metals industry was taken by surprise at the thought that the world’s largest aluminium maker, Alcoa, saw the superalloys business as its path to survival.

As Alcoa ceo Klaus Kleinfeld was quoted as saying in Farnborough’s ShowNews publication, “When I became ceo in early 2008, I gave a presentation to the board and said ‘I see two Alcoas’.” The split was subsequently carried out, and it would appear that by rebranding its integrated superalloys holdings into Arconic, Kleinfeld has pulled off a masterstroke, at one and the same time buying Alcoa time in the commodity downturn while hitching the Alcoa wagon to the one part of the metals industry that is booming.

Although the airline industry has not been immune to the general economic slowdown, with world airline orders down, order fulfilment remains on full throttle. For companies exposed to commodities, the world of superalloys has only become more attractive – and Alcoa has not been alone in identifying the niche. After Alcoa’s step, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Precision Castparts (PCC) in August 2015, for $37.2 billion, with Buffett citing the multi-year nature of aircraft building and advanced engineering technology as a prime attraction (for “advanced”, perhaps read “profitable”).

Superalloys consolidation may not necessarily be over yet either, and looks like continuing with the speed of a Hawk trainer. For it now just leaves Doncasters Group, valued at about $1.2 billion, according to press reports, as the largest private superalloys and castings group not yet merged or bought.

Once regarded as fourth in the pecking order behind PCC, Howmet and Firth Rixson in this consolidated sector, it is seen as “one of three”. (A bit unfair on Aubert & Duval in France, IHI in Japan and others but nonetheless a sign of a market view and a sector running at full capacity.)

Perhaps, therefore, it would be worth not losing sight of the object of the exercise and what all these groups want to share. It all tends towards the same ends: how to make gas turbine engines run hotter, how to burn fuel more efficiently, how to reduce costs to airlines, how to make the airframe lighter while also making it stronger, how to make repairs less frequent or create substances that can self-heal, how to weave in new technology such as ceramic matrix composites or 3D printing?

Cutting-edge ideas

So let’s list a few things that metals merchants, producers and stockists might like to keep an eye on. The idea, for example, that Arconic and others will pursue aluminium-lithium in the front fan (already in commercial use on the PW 1000G Pure Power Geared TurboFan) and replace hollow honeycombed titanium, is interesting; especially in a market that looks like it will become lithium poor.

On show too at Farnborough were titanium parts fashioned via 3D printing (additive manufacturing), wonderful in their complexity and yet strangely unfinished on their surfaces. Achieving the goal of minimising fabrication stages has come at the cost of a smooth, machined and ultimately usable appearance.

In other areas, the UK company Magnesium Elektron has developed alloys of magnesium that, with the addition of zirconium and certain rare earth elements, have created strength and corrosion resistance. Some of these are supplied for the manufacture of gearbox cases used in rotorcraft, while its flagship patented Elektron 43 wrought alloy, after more than ten years of collaboration, has been FAA approved for aircraft seat structures.

Meanwhile, also in the magnesium field, Stone Engineering Group has gained casting work on the F35, counted as part of the local input programme for the Dutch. (An example, perhaps, of a trans-EU benefit in the defence industry.)

Once again, even at today’s lower oil prices, making the aircraft lighter to improve fuel efficiency is the ultimate aim in an industry that routinely plans 30 years ahead.

Elsewhere, the high pressure turbine blades at the core of all jet engines, made of single crystal alloy with its many exotic elements such as rhenium, are also moving towards generational change. The F35 engine already uses third-generation nickel alloys containing 6% rhenium, but fourth-generation alloys, with ruthenium as well as rhenium – once used by Rolls-Royce in the Trent 1000, but since removed for fear of volatile markets – are likely to make a comeback.

This generation of alloy is technically proven and with ruthenium now at an affordable $1,600 per kg (less than the price of rhenium) the commercial case for it is becoming too attractive for some to dismiss. Others, GE notably, hail ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), and say these materials will replace conventional nickel-based superalloys in some applications within their Leap engines.

In the UK, part of the lasting and positive legacy of the ruling coalition government’s 2010-2015 policy was to focus UK state support on aerospace. This helped to create a strong cluster of industries vying to build on the legacy of more than a century of aircraft making. The National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (Natep) linked into the UK government’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative and has been a great success, and is perhaps a model for rebooting UK manufacturing skills more generally.

I have visited factories in the aerospace sector and personally witnessed the way in which seed money and matching grants have enhanced output and quality, catalysing investment that might not otherwise have taken place.

Combined strength

On the Innovate UK stand at Farnborough, universities, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and other centres of UK materials science exhibited together in a way that was a metaphor for UK industry’s combined strength in the sector.

Among those interesting exhibitors, the Clean Sky stand had a mock-up of a futuristic aero-engine that would use the turbine not as total energy provider for aircraft thrust but merely in order to generate electric super-conducted power to turn the fan.

Meanwhile, further afield, Natep’s seed funding is seeing applications of graphene to produce conductive adhesives, or to support next generation Helix technology (the pig-tails used for growing single-crystal turbine blade alloys into high-pressure turbine blades) to make them more efficient and improve yields and, in another project, supporting work to use additive engineering to make the ceramic cores for precision casting.

Harmonising all this is the ADS (Aerospace Defence, Security and Space Group) set up by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills under the UK’s coalition government and acting through the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and other executive bodies to support everything from links with universities, such as Sheffield Hallam, to part-funding the work on nano-satellites to explore our solar system or materials for super-hydrophobic surfaces. (The much-needed surfaces to keep the rain off.)

This year’s Farnborough International Airshow featured the first UK public viewing of Lockheed Martin’s F35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter.

By 3pm on Tuesday I was ready to see the delayed air display and, of course, witness the star of the show – the first public viewing in UK airspace of Lockheed Martin’s F35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter with Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engine. As we waited at the appointed hour for the take-off, some of us looked at each other rather blankly as, unlike previous aerobatics, there appeared to be no plane revving up on the runway. “That’s a shame,” we thought. “Perhaps rain is going to stop play again?” Then, coming out of the east, we detected a speck in the far distance. Within a few seconds it had passed us and disappeared into the far west and become another speck. A few moments later the same happened from west to east and we thought, “Not bad, but it was much more fun in the old days when the Harrier Jumpjets were on display.”

A few moments later, I found myself standing by the runway not more than 50 yards from the now returned F35, using its Rolls Royce-designed lift fan to hover in front of us, rotating with precision and demonstrating the astonishing flexibility of this flying machine.

I turned to my colleague, another metals trader, and agreed that perhaps we would take back that comment about the Harrier.

It is just a shame that all this F35 technology and ingenuity is for defence and war, really…

Published July 25th 2016 on


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