Aluminum Forgings Mean More Synergy for SIFCO

RAT assembly that shows the Aluminum blades that are made by QAF.  This unit is installed in a 777. (Image courtesy of Allied Signal Corporation)

RAT assembly that shows the aluminum blades that are made by QAF.  This unit is installed in a Boeing 777. (Image courtesy of Allied Signal Corporation)

During the past 100 years, nearly every airplane and helicopter has had a SIFCO-forged part on it. From landing gear components to propeller hubs to engine mounts, SIFCO forgings have kept aircraft safe and reliable. Until recently, most of those parts were forged primarily from titanium, nickel and stainless steel-based metals.

As SIFCO approached its centennial, part of its strategic plan was to continue to look for new ways to serve its customers. Some customers, for example, were seeking an all-inclusive forge company.

An opportunity to implement that strategy came for SIFCO in June 2011, when Quality Aluminum Forge LLC—“QAF”—in Orange, Calif., came on the market. The SIFCO management team of Mike Lipscomb and Jim Woidke contacted John Glover, the former CFO of QAF, and together they approached the QAF owners.

“I knew the company well,” recalled Lipscomb, who had been on QAF’s board during the 1990s. In October 2011, SIFCO purchased QAF, and a new era in SIFCO’s capabilities in the aerospace industry had begun.

Just as aluminum compounds are the most abundant metal on the Earth, “aluminum is the most common metal on an airplane,” remarked Lipscomb. “It’s strong and light, and the metal of choice on commercial airplanes.”

One of QAF's aluminum forging presses during a forging process.

One of QAF’s aluminum forging presses during a forging process

QAF started as two forging companies. One in Long Beach forged aluminum pistons for high-performance vehicles, and the other in Orange forged “near net shaped” aluminum forgings for the aerospace industry. In the mid-1970s, the two operations were acquired under common ownership and became known as QAF. Both facilities produce aluminum forgings today.

John Glover, who grew up in Hamilton, Ontario—just across Lake Erie from Cleveland—had been working in aluminum forgings since 1979. He moved to the United States in 1984, becoming chief financial officer from 1992 to 2000 for QAF.

The “near net shaped” (also known as “precision”) aluminum forging process produces a forged part that is closer to a finished product than the conventional forging process. Conventional forgings come out of a die with only a basic shape and require more down-the-line operations. “With precision aluminum forgings, you almost have a finished shape,” Glover said.

Forged aluminum blades used in the ram air turbine that is used to provide emergency power for vital systems for an aircraft if the main power sources fail. (Image courtesy of QAF)

Forged aluminum blades are used in the ram air turbine that provides emergency power for vital systems of an aircraft if the main power sources fail. (Image courtesy of QAF)

“With precision aluminum, you’re moving the metal to the desired shape with segmented dies that have several pieces to them, as opposed to the conventional two-piece impression die that you use with conventional forgings,” he continued. “The result is a lighter part with the superior strength of a forging, as the grain structure follows the shape of the part. Our parts mean shorter lead times, weight savings, less machining, and in some cases, only drilling of attachment holes.”

With the acquisition of QAF, SIFCO began moving even more dynamically into commercial aviation. “The addition of QAF’s aluminum capabilities to Cleveland’s SIFCO Forged Components’ titanium and other metal capabilities meant that we could supply customers on their full product range of metal requirements. The result was that we both gained new customers,” said CEO Lipscomb. “Recently we won business for aluminum from our titanium customers and vice versa.”

John Glover agreed. “You see our parts in the wings. When the door closes, those are our parts. The emergency door handle—QAF made those, as well as others, such as the doorstops on the Boeing 737 aircraft. You see them anywhere on the aircraft where there’s a stress point. Customers often prefer aluminum because it’s lighter and less costly than titanium,” he said.

The ATR-72

The ATR-72

Window frame used in ATR 42/72 aircraft.

Window frame used in ATR 42 and 72 aircraft

QAF’s GM, John Glover, agrees. QAF’s parts are used throughout the structure of an airplane. Window frames, door stops and stowage bin arms are visible parts that QAF supplies on major aircraft programs. Ribs, spars and valve bodies are parts the passenger does not see.

Glover pointed out that “there is a lot more labor, but less material and more strength with precision aluminum forgings” compared to other methods of making aluminum parts, such as casting or conventional forgings. “If you put too much stress on a casting, it can break. With a forging, because the stress moves along the grain structure, our parts will tend to bend, rather than break under the same stress load.”

Glover recalled that Mike Lipscomb “talked about what the acquired company, QAF, could do for the acquiring company, SIFCO, and vice versa. Because QAF and SIFCO Forge were in different markets, over the past year and a half or so we’ve been able to get new customers for each—because of that synergy.”

Glover also stressed that SIFCO was never looking to save money by cutting people, but by getting more sales volume. Lipscomb agreed. “When we made that acquisition of QAF, we didn’t lay off one employee. Instead, we grew our businesses.”

Dozens of the world’s top aircraft makers use QAF forgings, such as Bell Helicopter Textron, Boeing, Cessna, G.E. Aviation, General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman and Sikorsky Aircraft. Its parts are on all of Boeing’s and most of Airbus’s programs (737, 747, 777 and 787; the A320 family and the new A350).

In keeping with SIFCO’s 100-year tradition of innovation and excellence, adding aluminum forgings to SIFCO for commercial aircraft was a necessary part of SIFCO’s future. “Until recently, SIFCO produced mostly forgings for military,” said Lipscomb. “But since 2010, we’ve become about 60 percent commercial. I think forging has a very strong future. Every part of the plane needs the lower weight and added strength of forged metal.”