Modular Fixturing for Assembly and Welding Applications
NASA's researchers have designed modular fixtures to address inefficiencies in time, labor, and material costs due to the need to fabricate unique, monolithic fixture bodies for different segments of the Space Launch System (SLS). Before NASA staff can configure and weld rocket sections, they must assemble modular tooling atop a large turntable with radial grooves. Supporting braces (tombstones) that form the base of the modular structure slide into radial grooves. Other extending, clamping, and joining fixtures can be variously connected to the base structure to provide circumferential support for producing conical and cylindrical structures. NASA has used the tooling to produce structures with diameters of up to 27 feet. Depending on the desired application, the base can be scaled to produce larger or smaller diameters, and the grooves can be arranged with a longitudinal arrangement for production of parts with bilateral symmetry. The development of these modular fixtures required an initial investment similar to that of a single project's tool design and fabrication costs. Once produced, only a fraction of that time/cost is required to begin all subsequent projects. NASA has used this new, adaptable tooling in the construction of several different rocket stages, proving its cost-saving capabilities.
Lower Chatter Friction Pull Plug Welding (FPPW)
The new friction pull plug design is optimized to reduce chatter that results as a fast rotating plug enters the hole in the part. The plug design is based on a shank with multiple frustoconical sections shown in the figure to the right. The sections are carefully sized to ensure that the spinning plug contacts the edge of the hole at just the right position to minimize chatter. It keeps the machine from stalling when the plug enters the hole. This new design makes FPPW more practical, perhaps even as a future rivet replacement.
Variable-Power Handheld Laser Torch
Features of the handheld torch's design include manual controls to modify the laser diameter and power output in real time. This ability allows the user to adjust the laser depending on circumstantial needs, resulting in a torch that is well suited for in-field repairs of metals where space and time are constrained. The primary applications are likely to be in-field welding and brazing of damaged specialized equipment. The laser technology is a variable-power, continuous-wave, handheld fiber laser torch for brazing metals with an increased precision and maneuverability. The laser hardware and supply measures 24 inches in length, 15 inches in width, and 30 inches in height, with a torch diameter of about 0.8 inches. This size is nearly half that of traditional welding systems, which increases the portability of the machine as well as the welder's maneuverability. The current handheld torch replaces earlier versions of handheld torches that cost over $700K to produce and had much larger footprints. After numerous design improvements and the inclusion of a commercial off-the-shelf fiber laser, the third-generation NASA torch is much smaller, with the handheld component being about 2.5 times larger than standard ink pens. The NASA handheld torch and system integration is estimated to cost between $60K and $70K. NASA has used the handheld laser on Haynes 230 super alloy to improve localized repair procedures. Preliminary tests produced a consistent data set of yield strength (YS), ultimate tensile strength (UTS), and percent elongation (%EL) that are comparable to the results of current GTAW techniques.
Nested Focusing Optics for Compact Neutron Sources
Conventional neutron beam experiments demand high fluxes that can only be obtained at research facilities equipped with a reactor source and neutron optics. However, access to these facilities is limited. The NASA technology uses grazing incidence reflective optics to produce focused beams of neutrons (Figure 1) from compact commercially available sources, resulting in higher flux concentrations. Neutrons are doubly reflected off of a parabolic and hyperbolic mirror at a sufficiently small angle, creating neutron beams that are convergent, divergent, or parallel. Neutron flux can be increased by concentrically nesting mirrors with the same focal length and curvature, resulting in a convergence of multiple neutron beams at a single focal point. The improved flux from the compact source may be used for non-destructive testing, imaging, and materials analysis. The grazing incidence neutron optic mirrors are fabricated using an electroformed nickel replication technique developed by NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Figure 2). A machined aluminum mandrel is super-polished to a surface roughness of 3-4 angstroms root mean square and plated with layers of highly reflective nickel-cobalt alloy. Residual stresses that can cause mirror warping are eliminated by periodically reversing the anode and cathode polarity of the electroplating system, resulting in a deformation-free surface. The fabrication process has been used to produce 0.5 meter and 1.0 meter lenses.
Ultrasonic Stir Welding
Ultrasonic Stir Welding is a solid state stir welding process, meaning that the weld work piece does not melt during the welding process. The process uses a stir rod to stir the plasticized abutting surfaces of two pieces of metallic alloy that forms the weld joint. Heating is done using a specially designed induction coil. The control system has the capability to pulse the high-power ultrasonic (HPU) energy of the stir rod on and off at different rates from 1-second pulses to 60-millisecond pulses. This pulsing capability allows the stir rod to act as a mechanical device (moving and stirring plasticized nugget material) when the HPU energy is off, and allowing the energized stir rod to transfer HPU energy into the weld nugget (to reduce forces, increase stir rod life, etc.) when the HPU energy is on. The process can be used to join high-melting-temperature alloys such as titanium, Inconel, and steel.
Improving Formability of Al-Li Alloys
Via this NASA innovation, a product is first heated to a temperature within the range of 204 to 343 degrees C for an extended soak of up to 16 hours. The product is then slowly heated to a second temperature within the range of 371 to 482 degrees C for a second soak of up to 12 hours. Finally, the product is slowly cooled to a final soak temperature of 204 to 343 degrees C before cooling to room temperature. The product so treated will exhibit greatly improved formability. To date, the low formability issue has limited the use of lightweight Al-Li alloys for large rocket fuel tank dome applications. Manufacturing a dome by stretch forming typically requires multiple panels as well as multiple welding and inspection steps to assemble these panels into a full-scale fuel tank dome. Complex tensile and bending stresses induced during the stretch forming operations of Al-Li alloys have resulted in high rates of failure for this process. To spin form a large rocket dome, the spin blank must be prepared by joining smaller plates together using friction stir welding. However, friction stir welding produces a distinct metallurgical structure inside and around the friction stir weld that makes it very susceptible to cracking during spin forming.