Many aerospace companies are trying to make a big noise in titanium these days, but workers at Alcoa’s parts fabrication plant at Samara, in southeastern Russia, had best tighten up their ear protectors. From 2016, their 75,000-ton forging press – until recently the world’s biggest – will be going to work on material supplied by Russia’s VSMPO-AVISMA, the world′s largest manufacturer of titanium ingots and forged products.
A joint venture agreement signed in Moscow last week between Alcoa and VSMPO will see the two companies “leverage a unique asset” in that forging press, says Alcoa Investment Castings, Forgings and Extrusions chief operating officer Eric Roegner. Alcoa bought the Samara and Belaya Kalitva aluminium processing plants in 2005, and has since invested more than $540 million in facilities, including modern control technology for a forging press that remains the sole source globally of some particularly large products.
But while the Samara plant – which dates back to 1960 – and this “beautiful piece of equipment” have been focussed on aluminium, Roegner notes that a forge is “material agnostic”.
Hence the VSMPO alliance is way for both companies to bring both capacity and capability to bear on the aerospace titanium forgings market, which Roegner describes as one of the most attractive segments of the aerospace industry. The details of the joint venture have yet to be worked out, but the broad plan, which Roegner says is being laid out with great confidence, is to supply qualified and certificated forged titanium components to major aerospace customers from 2016.
In VSMPO, Alcoa has a very mature partner, whose operations span from the mines to finished products. It has been strategic partner to Boeing since 1997, and through a Russian joint venture that will draw some $27 million in Boeing investment over 30 years supplies the 787 and other Boeing programmes with rough-machined titanium parts for finishing in the USA.
At the MAKS airshow in Moscow this summer, VSMPO and Airbus renewed a 20-year relationship, signing what the companies called an “end-to-end strategic collaboration” covering development, processing and recycling of titanium material for all Airbus programmes. VSMPO is also a key organiser of Russia’s so-called “Titanium Valley” project, a government-industry initiative to build a cluster of expertise in the Urals region.
Alcoa is of course best-known for aluminium. Roegner is probably not exaggerating when he says no Western aircraft programme has ever flown without some Alcoa content; even the Wright Flyer’s engine block and crankcase were cast from Alcoa aluminium.
Today, fasteners, investment castings and structural materials such as sheet, plate, forgings or extrusions each account for about a third of Alcoa’s $3.8 billion annual aerospace business. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is that the company has long been a multi-material supplier, working in titanium, nickel, steel and magnesium. Alcoa has produced structural castings in titanium since 1917, and titanium figures significantly in fasteners and castings like hot-section engine blades.
Hence the VSMPO alliance has the potential to become a significant centre of gravity in the aerospace supply chain. Roegner sees the tie-up as an “efficient and timely” way to bring technology to market that no rival can yet match. And, he adds, by mutually reinforcing each other’s capabilities, the joint venture gives both partners an extra layer of redundancy, which should build confidence in customers who might otherwise see supply chain risk in two single points of failure.
VSMPO general director Mikhail Voevodin makes the same point: “This agreement will add to our current manufacturing capabilities, as the company gets access to unique forging equipment. This step enables us to increase our output and ensure the consistency of supply.”
As for pure scale, the mighty forging press at Samara has recently lost its “world’s largest” crown to an 80,000-ton monster at China’s state-owned Erzhong industrial group in Deyang, Sichuan. Roegner is well aware the Chinese have their eyes on large aerospace forgings, but is confident that the combined aerospace expertise of Alcoa and VSMPO will keep them ahead of emerging rivals. After all, he stresses, there is a big difference between making a part and certificating it to fly.