Aerospace industry benefits from IBC manufacturing marvel

Friday, October 16, 2015


Innovation remains a crowning achievement for companies of all sizes. A case in point: Vancouver-based IBC Advance Alloys Corporation, with the introduction of its Beralcast beryllium aluminum casting alloy.

Considered a modern-day manufacturing marvel, Beralcast is an improvement on the current form of beryllium aluminum, which, until now, was only available in machined components. It overcomes the limitations of pure beryllium and existing powder metal beryllium aluminum products, while retaining the benefits of the two metals. Thanks to IBC’s innovation, the company successfully delivered its first completed Beralcast azimuth gimbal housing components to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin in July for use in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Electro Optical Targeting System (EOTS).

“We believe it is a manufacturing marvel, because it moves the industry from a machined to a castable material,” said IBC Advanced Alloys President and CEO Anthony Dutton. “Machined parts are expensive, time consuming and have a high yield of loss.”

Beralcast is manufactured through IBC Engineered Materials Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of specialized metals manufacturer IBC Advanced Alloys Corporation. IBC is an integrated manufacturer and distributor of rare metals (beryllium)-based alloys and related products serving a variety of industries, including automotive, nuclear energy, telecommunications and a range of industrial applications. The company has 80 employees and has headquarters in Vancouver, Canada, with production facilities in Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

IBC’s Wilmington, Massachusetts, plant is responsible for beryllium-aluminum castings, while the company’s Indiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania plants oversee its beryllium-copper alloys business. Copper alloys currently account for approximately 85 percent of the company’s revenue.

The product is made using a process similar to conventional vacuum investment casting and can be cast into complex shapes that require minimal machining. This metal matrix composite material has been effectively used for such products as optical and mechanical components for guidance, control, targeting and stabilizing applications, as well as satellite structures for aerospace and defense purposes. IBC holds patents on the Beralcast mixture but not for the manufacturing process.

The low coefficient of thermal expansion also makes Beralcast better suited to mate with steel and germanium than aluminum. The unique combination of properties present in Beralcast can result in as much as a 30 to 50 percent savings in weight over aluminum based upon the straight density advantages and stiffness-driven design benefits (i.e., reducing the required casting thickness). Additionally, depending on the part configuration, Beralcast can be precision cast to a wall thickness of less than an inch. The maximum casting size is approximately 2 ½ feet wide by 2 ¾ feet deep and four feet high.

Currently being used in the aerospace industry, beryllium is the second-lightest material in the world, and when alloyed with aluminum, it is very stiff, with a very low coefficient of thermal expansion. According to Dutton, Beralcast alloys are ideally suited to aerospace applications when lightweight, high modulus and cost are critical performance factors. In fact, the material is three times stiffer than aluminum, with 22 percent less weight, and could be substituted for aluminum, magnesium, titanium and metal matrix composites, as well as pure beryllium, powder metallurgy beryllium or powder beryllium-aluminum.

“Casting is not new. In the past, others have tried to achieve a castable beryllium-aluminum, but with no success,” Dutton said. “We’ve been working on this for four years and are grateful to Lockheed Martin, which was important to the process. They work closely with their supply chain partners and were proactive in solving the challenge.”

The challenge Dutton speaks of is the process of achieving an even consistency of beryllium and existing powder metal beryllium aluminum. Machined parts containing both beryllium and aluminum, for example, are expensive to manufacture because the two materials are difficult to work together. Metallurgical differences, including different melting points, make the alloying of the materials challenging. According to Dutton, prior industry efforts to combine the two in a castable manner resulted in a weakening of their individual characteristics.

IBC’s success has applications possible beyond the aerospace industry, including disk-drive armatures; automotive braking and structural components; mechanical table components and optical sensors for the semiconductor industry; and mainstream commercial applications such as bicycle rims and golf shafts.

In 2011, IBC completed construction of its new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Wilmington for the production of its proprietary Beralcast family of high-performance ultra-lightweight alloys. The plant was specifically geared toward meeting increasing customer technical requirements and high quality standards, while accommodating faster and more demanding delivery schedules.

For the aerospace industry, this manufacturing marvel will have a dramatic impact on aircraft, Dutton said, aiding extreme changes in temperature and climate without changing shape.

“Fighter jets in the Persian Gulf, for example, can be on aircraft carriers in sweltering heat and within a few minutes be 50,000 feet up in freezing cold,” Dutton said. “For those temperature extremes, it’s important you have a material that is as stable as possible."

Lockheed Martin’s EOTS provides affordable, high-performance multifunction targeting to the F-35’s full spectrum of military operations. It is the first sensor to combine forward-looking infrared and infrared search and track functionality to provide F-35 pilots with situational awareness and air-to-air and air-to-surface targeting from a safe distance. The technology enables aircrews to identify areas of interest, perform reconnaissance and precisely deliver laser- and GPS-guided weapons.

“Beralcast raises the bar for high-performance aerospace applications delivered with cost and lead time savings,” Dutton said. “This is an important milestone for both IBC and the aerospace industry.”

Dutton said IBC has “phenomenal relationships” with the aerospace, automotive and oil and gas industry and believed those relationships will drive the future of the business of the company. Foreseeing the benefits of a stiff, yet lightweight castable alloy for products like cell phone and laptop casing, prosthetics or anything where reduced weight is important, Dutton said the potential for future applications is “limitless.” Dutton equates the introduction of Beralcast to the debut of carbon fiber in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The manufacturing process using carbon fiber has changed because it’s more affordable for engineers to use,” Dutton said. “With Beralcast, we can deliver components better, faster and cheaper than if they were made as machined components. It means that customers who couldn’t afford to use this alloy before may now afford to use it.”