If you were starting a manufacturing operation today, to produce airframe structures, for example, would you invest in a forging process? That’s the sort of question posed by analysts and finance specialists, but it often occurs to product designers or engineers seeking to realize a specific detail or quality for their concept. It’s a question that occurs even to forging industry professionals unsatisfied with some function or by-product of the process they use.

Joe Mele knew that feeling over 30 years ago, while working as director of manufacturing research with Grumman Aerospace Corp. “I noted the huge amount of machine chips that resulted from the forging of aircraft parts,” he recalled recently. “I developed an interest in attempting to reduce this amount of machining, and thus to reduce the waste of material, and to reduce the labor involved.”

Mele is the developer of the Meleform Flo-Forge process, which resulted from the interest he pursued having seen the some of the inefficiencies of open-die forging for engineered parts for aerospace programs. This forming technology manages to address Mele’s initial objectives, but it also has prospects for more current manufacturing concerns, such as production speed, process flexibility, and component accuracy. Meleform Flo-Forge is a “near-net-shape” forming technology, a concept that Mele noted no longer seems to interest forgers, possibly “because the results were not near enough,” he speculated.

Near-net-shape refers to processes that produce parts requiring little or no machining to complete. This innovative development results in stronger components and the improvement of the performance of the engine. The process normally refers to two types of forging, cold and warm.

Mele may be correct, but forgers should care about near-net-shape manufacturing for competitive reasons. After all, it is one of the chief selling points of additive manufacturing for product designers, as well as for analysts and financiers who guide business decisions. Also, near-net-shape forging represents accuracy and efficiency, which are standards for measuring improvement in any manufacturing operation.

In the 1990s, while working as a Grumman consultant and Professor of Manufacturing Technology Mele continued to pursue the matter of machine chips, and with some Grumman associates he began to lead research into alternatives. In 1993 he applied to the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency (DARPA, a unit of the U.S. Dept. of Defense) for a grant to investigate a possible solution to the "problem." Mele’s idea — that aircraft parts could be produced to near-net shape, and thereby avoid the production time and cost (and material waste) represented by machining —earned a $100,000 grant. The result of that research project is the technological development called "MELEFORM." 

A final report on the project was submitted to DARPA in 1995, detailing a new technology then called "The Pullform Process” (TRD 93-019.) Mele continued to develop the technology for another 10 years, working with engineers and production managers from aluminum producers, forgers, and defense contractors to manufacture a variety of demonstration parts.

Eventually, Mele retired and attended to other matters, and the prototype machine was disassembled. But the working concept remains sound, and should be reviewed by manufacturers seeking to add or replace forming capacity.

“The design of the press for MELEFORM FLO-FORGE process is very different from the design of conventional forging presses,” according to Mele, which may partly explain some forgers’ reluctance to adopt it. “Conventional presses are very large structures weighing 6,000 to 8,000 tons and standing up to 12 stories high. They include several large hydraulic cylinders in the structure in order to attain a force of up to 50,000 tons.”

Production "scale" is an increasingly important consideration in manufacturing plant design and development, again as indicated by the recent enthusiasm generated by additive manufacturing. New forging presses can take years to develop and install, often requiring extensive foundation work and complex planning and programming to integrate the production sequence with existing operations.