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New Tool Creates a Big Stir

A new self-adjusting, retractable pin tool for friction stir welding is now used in the manufacturing of components for NASA Space Shuttles. Friction stir welding is a process that makes straight-line welds without bringing the parent material to a liquid state. This is accomplished through high-speed rotation, which generates frictional heat between the welding tool and the piece being welded. This heat causes the material to soften to the point of plasticity without allowing it to melt. The plasticized material is then transferred from the front edge of the welding tool to the trail edge, where it joins the pieces being welded. However, a major flaw of this method is its reliance on a single-piece pin tool. The weld is left unfinished and a hole remains where the pin was inserted. The hole must be covered with a rivet in order to preserve the integrity of the weld. The NASA-developed pin tool, however, eliminates the need for this finishing step, as its retraction allows continuous rewelding at lesser depths, until the hole is completely closed. With this NASA technology, welding of higher strength alloys, as well as non-planer and variable thickness structures can be achieved. Applications are projected for the defense industry, and according to an engineer from Marshall, the technology could be used to weld shut radioactive waste canisters.
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