Friction stir welding re-enters the spotlight with the launch of the new Apple iMac - illustrating the adaptability of the process and its potential for the future of electronics design.
Invented by Wayne Thomas and a team of researchers at TWI in the UK in 1991, friction stir welding has evolved from its beginnings as a novel method proven for joining thin-section aluminium alloy components in the automotive and aerospace industries, into a revolutionary and adaptable engineering process with far-reaching industrial potential for joining light metal alloys including titanium, as well as steel and other hard metals in thicker sections.
The benefits of friction stir welding on processing speed, weld strength and integrity, welding environment safety, energy efficiency and cost reduction are being realised by an increasing number of fabricators across the globe. So far the joining technique has been chosen as an engineering design solution or for process development by 231 organisations in 24 countries. Around half these organisations are end-users; the other half research organisations, equipment suppliers and academia - with the majority based in the USA, Japan, China, Germany and Sweden.
As process inventor, TWI holds the patent to the basic method of friction stir welding plus several variants, and continues to drive the innovation in its variations and improvements through an internal research and development programme. TWI is also active in the preparation of world standards and guidance relating to the use of the welding process.
In terms of advanced applications demonstrating the success of the process, friction stir welding has been applied in many of the world's space launch vehicles, including the Space Shuttle, Delta II and IV, SpaceX Falcon 9, and Ariane.
In the rail industry, the process is used in the production of aluminium-bodied rail cars, including Hitachi super-fast trains (Shinkansen), which can reach speeds of 320kph.
Friction stir welding is also commonly used in the aerospace industry by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and EADS, and specifically for some applications in Eclipse, Boeing, Spirit and Airbus aircraft.
Other uses of the enabling welding process include specialist car manufacture by companies such as Audi, Ford and Mazda, as well as in the manufacture of large heatsinks and in the build of ship superstructures.
New applications are still being discovered, and Apple Inc's endorsement of friction stir welding during its recent product launch presentation and in promotional literature about the design of the new iMac is the latest high-profile industry example of the worldwide success of the UK-patented joining process.
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