Welding has long been used in aviation manufacturing to construct and repair aircraft. While aerospace manufacturing has become increasingly advanced with more robust technology and lighter materials, welding is still one of the primary methods of joining two metals together. In this article, we will discuss the history and current practices of aircraft welding.
Some of the first aircraft to achieve commercial success were made of welded steel frames. Steel was the choice material at the time because it was readily available, cheap, and easy to weld. However, as air travel was still an emerging technology, little thought was given to factors like longevity and ease of maintenance, both of which are reduced by welding. As aluminum became the predominant material used in aircraft construction in the 1930s, engineers transitioned from welding to using rivets to bind aircraft surfaces. Rivets allowed for easier inspection and maintenance as they could readily be removed using a drill.
Today, novel technologies have brought welding back as a viable choice for aircraft construction and repair. The oldest welding method still used today is gas welding which involves bringing two metal parts to extreme temperatures and combining them. This modality is more expensive than other options which is why its primary use is in the repair of aircraft, rather than their construction.
Electric arc welding is the most commonly practiced form of welding due to its superior economic profile and capability for use on all types of metals. While there are different categories of electric arc welding, they all involve using concentrated heat created by an electric arc to join metals together. Many aircraft owners will choose electric arc welding to aid in engine overhauls as it is compatible with the magnesium alloys used in the engine.
Electric resistance welding involves using an electric current to combine thin pieces of sheet metal during manufacturing. This type of welding is beneficial as a quick method that allows dissimilar metals to be bound together. However, electric resistance welding machines are generally much more expensive initially as compared to other options. Still, they are cost-effective in the long run as there are no consumable materials used during operation. Additionally, it is one of the easiest forms of welding to learn, making it an attractive option for owners looking to complete their own repairs.
Plasma arc welding provides the most precise results and is thus used in applications requiring high-quality welds. However, these machines are generally only found in manufacturing facilities as the cost of operation and technical skill needed by the welder are both high. Nevertheless, many fighter jets and spacecraft are constructed using this precision technique.
As engineers strive to build lighter high-performance aircraft, welding is expected to replace rivets as the preferred construction method. As a result, techniques like variable polarity plasma arc and computer-controlled electron beam welding are being further developed for next-generation fighter aircraft. Additionally, experts are embracing advanced diagnostics and imagery to aid in welding more complexly designed aircraft.
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