A Meleform Flo-Forge press would weigh about four to five tons, the developer explained. It would not need a deep foundation like conventional press, just a 10x10x5-ft. (LxWxD) base for the platen. And, the machine design does not include any hydraulic cylinders so the overall assemblage is simpler.

One hydraulic cylinder is attached to the machine, to supply power for pulling and pushing a die through the press. Another significant design detail is an indexing mechanism that is part of the cylinder, which allows for the press to produce longer parts, such as airframe structures.

“The Meleform Flo-Forge production is capable of producing parts of various sizes to net shape,” according to Mele. “By eliminating machining, it provides significant savings in material, labor and time.   I am confident that this new technology is simply waiting for an interested partner for continued development.” 

Mele’s description of the process is somewhat suggestive of deep drawing, though the parts being formed are potentially larger and more complex. Components produced by Meleform Flo-Forge also target much more critical applications, namely parts for military and commercial aircraft programs, automotive and commercial vehicles, and structural systems.

Plate stock of various aluminum and aluminum-lithium alloys, as well as Weldalite and MMCs have been successfully processed in production trials with various manufacturers.

“The principle of the Meleform Flo-Forge technology is to shape a component part in a progressive die,” Mele noted; “the male portion of the die is segmented. The die is pulled through the Meleform Flo-Forge press. The male segments engage the tapered surface of the upper platen in the press."  

“The Meleform Flo-Forge press does not apply any force,” he emphasized. “The force applied is (provided by) only one hydraulic cylinder, attached to the press with a removable pin.”

The 12-in. diameter hydraulic power cylinder is not integral to the press; it can be removed easily for maintenance or repair.  The cylinder is positioned on a carriage, designed as an modular, indexing unit that makes it possible to form parts of varying lengths.

A Meleform Flo-Forge plant would use modular furnaces to maintain uniform die temperatures and move them effectively into and out of the presses. “This feature, and a uniform stable strain rate of 2.3 minutes per foot, produces stable results in the smooth material in the die,” according to the developer. “The low strain rate under pressure (about 35,000 psi) is the feature that allows material to flow in all directions to completely fill the die and to achieve net shape.”

Mele emphasized some essential points about the Meleform process, in particular that it does not remove material. Rather, the process “moves” material at a constant temperature and constant strain rate. The parts it forms have flash (ensuring exactness) and minimum (or no) folds and/or voids.

The results can be impressive. A 20-ft.-long part can be formed fabricated in one day, Mele said, while the time in the press would be only four hours.

In the test programs with various manufacturers the Meleform Flo-Forge system produced net-shape parts with RMS-32 surface finish. Other than removing the flash, no other post-processing is needed.  The system was demonstrated effective at forming aircraft wing panels, spar beams, engine bulkheads; ballistic missile barrel sections; and automotive control arms.

The modularity and flexibility of the process design would be advantageous to plants of various sizes, with or without specific assets already in place. Developing Meleform Flo-Forge will not be difficult, Mele contended. A greenfield or start-up operation is an obvious possibility, too. In operation, the system would address problems for manufacturing programs concerned about long lead-times, material waste, and surface finishing.

Mele also noted the system has no EPA restrictions related to it. “The presses do not require hydraulic cylinders for pressure,” Mele pointed out. “The cross-section design is inexpensive, easy to assemble, and easy to disassemble if necessary to relocate.”

“The layout of the modular presses will require plant layout engineers,” he added. “For example, the furnaces should be designed to move on rails to facilitate quick response to the needs of the Meleform Flo-Forge system.”

Developing such a plant would find a market among buyers of critical forged parts, he predicted.  The output would have applications for aerospace and defense structures, jet engines, automobiles, railroad cars, trucks and trailers, and bridge or tunnel construction, Mele suggested.

So what are the prospects for the Meleform Flo-Forge system to be adopted by investors and operators starting up a plant today? A basic issue to be overcome is resistance to change. Operators are confident of the processes they have learned. Manufacturers want to execute their familiar programs with just a few improvements, like fewer machining chips, for example.

On the other hand, product designers and buyers often seem to have a very definite notion of what they want, a product that is manufactured to address a particular problem. Neither designers, nor manufacturers, nor buyers may be alert to the change in processes that their ideas are fostering. Together their interests may be shaping some new approach to forming engineered parts. Or in this case, “net shaping.”

“It seems that ‘net shape’ is not really understood,” Mele concluded. Possibly not for much longer.