Buyers that are new to managing industrial supply chains often lack understanding issues of lead times. There is a saying, “If you want to learn how to bake bread, first become a farmer, then a miller, then a chemist, then a baker.” One must understand how the many ingredients are grown and come together to make bread, much less something desirable and delicious.

The difference between bread and metal component parts is that it is possible to buy a standard loaf of bread. Forgings and other metal component parts are not as easy to purchase, as they are not considered standard commodities. It is important to understand the supply chain and the time it takes to make metal component parts.

Metal alloys – the raw material we need to make forgings

A great variety of metal alloy forms are available in supply warehouses located all over the world. While this may seem to be the solution to material availability for any metal component part to be created, the reality is not that simple. With thousands of alloys and millions of sizes and shapes, warehouses stock only the grades and sizes they can expect to sell repeatedly. They can maintain inventory at a premium price for those less typical, hard-to-get items.

The materials needed for forgings must be mined or produced from recycled metals. These processes require months or even years of transport and processing from basic ores and metals to semi-finished products that are put in the forging process.

Raw material condition versus the product desired

stacked steel metal warehouse

Engineering a forgeing that meets product requirements requires more than the alloy chemical composition to be considered. Was the raw material – usually billet or bar for input for forging – processed in a manner that allows the deformation process to further improve the metallurgy? Does the surface condition of the raw material contribute essential characteristics? Do the physical dimensions of the raw material conform to the needs of the forging process, assuring correct die fill and efficient use of the raw material input?

Custom shapes and configurations

Why not just take a plain block of material and machine the component from it? Why not just use additive manufacturing to build it up from scratch?

High speed 5 axis machining centers are creating ever more complex shapes with ever higher speed. The possibilities with AM construction of components and the ability to build highly complex shapes opens new possibilities.

The issues that must be addressed are the efficiency and quality of those outcomes. Neither of those processes will produce the metallurgical qualities inherent in forged products that are subjected to deformation energy driving microstructural refinement. In volume builds, subtractive machining means additional scrap. In both machining and AM processes, production speeds may suffer with extended time on the machine tool needed for each part.

Time on the machine tool may be more productively spent creating products that provide more value add based on the unique capabilities of the machine tool. Expensive machine tools will not likely be profitable manufacturing every component. A near net forging reduces machining time and provides the reliable metallurgy for a durable component part.

The forged configuration

quality control

To create a custom forging that can become the finished component usually requires special tooling created during the forging design process. All the steps take time. As a first step, the forging and the deformation process must be engineered to deliver the required metallurgy, becoming the reliable, consistent input to subsequent machining operations.

This effort may require several rounds of consultation and computational modeling to have confidence the result will meet requirements. Once the process has been designed, tooling to make forgings must be created, raw material procured, and production scheduled on forging equipment.

Depending upon complexity, tooling may require weeks or months to produce. Raw material for tool construction may not be available for delivery for weeks or months. Production schedule lead times may also be weeks or months out before the equipment on the shop floor will have open time for production of your item.

Planning and communication are the keys to success

In a time where many meetings and conferences are “virtual”, being fully informed on a manufacturing process still requires site visits to appreciate the complexity of the machines and the skill required to operate them.

Informational videos are severely edited to address the short attention span that has become the standard of every video production. Such presentations oversimplify processes, leaving out many process steps and giving the impression that operations require no special skills or training. Editing turns operations that take hours into seconds, leading to misunderstandings of the time required to fill the supply chain pipeline and deliver the required product.

Like that loaf of bread

fresh loaf bread

Begin to appreciate the time it takes to do it right by baking your own bread. Take the time to research high quality ingredients, acquire them along with all the best equipment, and make the labor-intensive bread recipe that takes all day.

With that planning and care you will discover something far better than anything you can buy off the shelf. Premium materials and processes create products that have competitive advantage because they are better. Learning what it takes to acquire custom forgings requires similar attention and care. When your customer relationships require the best stuff on earth, forgings meet the need.