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Novel system for high-tech welding at low cost

TWI was part of a European-funded research project that developed technology enabling use of low-cost milling machines for a typically expensive metal-welding process favoured by the aerospace industry.

The process can now be easily employed by many industries where cost was prohibitive.

Industry need

Many industries rely on strong and durable metal components for their machines, systems and end products. To achieve various shapes and sizes, metals and metal alloys in thin sheets or slightly thicker plates are welded together.

One of the most widely used joining processes is arc welding, in which an electric arc melts the metals at their joint.

Friction stir welding (FSW) is a comparatively new technique. It uses a rotating pin tool that generates frictional heat combined with high forging pressure to soften, stir and form a uniform joint between two pieces of metal that remain in solid phase.

The technique has been particularly useful when joining difficult-to-weld materials such as aluminium, and effectively produces lightweight, strong, reliable and recyclable products. It is also safer and more environmentally friendly that conventional arc welding.

In fact, the technique has become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) method of choice for manufacture of aerospace components including those on the Space Shuttle.

Breaking down the barriers to entry

As is often the case, FSW’s widespread implementation in industry is prohibited by capital cost. EU funding of the ‘Development of a low-cost processing unit for friction stir welding’ (Lostir) project enabled TWI and European partners to integrate special tools and monitoring software with milling machines, facilitating low-cost FSW.

In addition to development of FSW tools compatible with milling machine operating constraints, scientists developed a low-cost FSW monitoring unit. The sensor monitored horizontal forces and torque on the tool and communicated with a laptop via two-way wireless digital telemetry.

LabVIEW software enabled real-time monitoring, event marking and automatic detection of weld parameters unacceptable for satisfactory welding.

Field tests by partners were met with enthusiasm. The Lostir system provided significant benefits to manufacturers that could have important positive impact on their business.

Lostir may just help companies use the welding technology NASA does for its space programme to build your next car.

To find out more about the Lostir project, view the final report summary on the EC CORDIS website or email

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