Friction Stir Welding at TWI

Stephan Kallee and Dave Nicholas


In late 1991 a very novel and potentially world beating welding method was conceived. The process was duly named friction stir welding (FSW), and TWI filed for world-wide patent protection in December of that year. Consistent with the more conventional methods of friction welding, which have been practised since the early 1950s, the weld is made in the solid phase, that is no melting. Since its invention, the process has received world-wide attention and today two Scandinavian companies are using the technology in production, particularly for joining aluminium alloys.

Friction Stir Welding

Friction stir welding principles In friction stir welding (FSW) a cylindrical, shouldered tool with a profiled probe is rotated and slowly plunged into the joint line between two pieces of sheet or plate material, which are butted together. The parts have to be clamped onto a backing bar in a manner that prevents the abutting joint faces from being forced apart. Frictional heat is generated between the wear resistant welding tool and the material of the workpieces. This heat causes the latter to soften without reaching the melting point and allows traversing of the tool along the weld line. The plasticised material is transferred from the leading edge of the tool to the trailing edge of the tool probe and is forged by the intimate contact of the tool shoulder and the pin profile. It leaves a solid phase bond between the two pieces. The process can be regarded as a solid phase keyhole welding technique since a hole to accommodate the probe is generated, then filled during the welding sequence.

Friction Stir Welding - Process advantages

The process advantages result from the fact that the FSW process (as all friction welding of metals) takes place in the solid phase below the melting point of the materials to be joined. The benefits therefore include the ability to join materials which are difficult to fusion weld, for example 2000 and 7000 aluminium alloys. Other advantages are as follows:
  • Low distortion, even in long welds
  • Excellent mechanical properties as proven by fatigue, tensile and bend tests
  • No fume
  • No porosity
  • No spatter
  • Low shrinkage
  • Can operate in all positions
  • Energy efficient

Friction stir welding can use existing and readily available machine tool technology. The process is also suitable for automation and adaptable for robot use. Its main advantages are:

  • Non-consumable tool
  • One tool can typically be used for up to 1000m of weld length in 6000 series aluminium alloys
  • No filler wire
  • No gas shielding for welding aluminium
  • No welder certification required
  • Some tolerance to imperfect weld preparations - thin oxide layers can be accepted
  • No grinding, brushing or pickling required in mass production

The limitations of the FSW process are being reduced by intensive research and development. However, the main limitations of the FSW process are at present:

  • Welding speeds are moderately slower than those of some fusion welding processes (up to 750mm/min for welding 5mm thick 6000 series aluminium alloy on commercially available machines)
  • Workpieces must be rigidly clamped
  • Backing bar required
  • Keyhole at the end of each weld
TWI invented the process in 1991 and has obtained patents.

Friction Stir Welding - Materials and thicknesses

Friction stir welding can be used for joining many types of materials and material combinations, if tool materials and designs can be found which operate at the forging temperature of the workpieces. Up to the present day, TWI has concentrated most of its efforts to optimising the process for the joining of aluminium and its alloys. A major Group Sponsored Project undertaken for TWI's Industrial Members demonstrated that the following aluminium alloys could be successfully welded to yield reproducible, high integrity welds within defined parametric tolerances.
  • 2000 series aluminium (Al-Cu)
  • 5000 series aluminium (Al-Mg)
  • 6000 series aluminium (Al-Mg-Si)
  • 7000 series aluminium (Al-Zn)
  • 8000 series aluminium (Al-Li)
weld between cast and wrought aluminium alloys This work primarily investigated welding of wrought and extruded alloys. However, subsequent studies have shown that cast to cast, and cast to extruded (wrought) combinations, in similar and dissimilar aluminium alloys are equally possible.

Continuing development of the FSW tool, its design and materials have allowed preliminary welds to be successfully produced in:

  • Copper and its alloys
  • Lead
  • Titanium and its alloys (see FSW
  • Magnesium alloy, Magnesium to aluminium
  • Zinc
  • MMCs based on aluminium (metal matrix composites)
  • Other aluminium alloys of the 1000 (commercially pure), 3000 (Al-Mn) and 4000 (Al-Si) series
  • Plastics
  • Mild steel

weld in thick alloy 6082 Single pass butt joints with aluminium alloys have been made in thicknesses ranging from 1.2mm to 50mm without the need for a weld preparation. Thicknesses of up to 100mm can be welded using two passes, one from each side, with 6082 aluminium alloy. Parameters for butt welding of most aluminium alloys have been optimised in a thickness range from 1.6mm to 10mm. Special lap joining tools have also been developed for aluminium with thicknesses of 1.2mm to 6.4mm.

Friction Stir Welding - Superior weld quality

The repeatable quality of the solid-phase welds can improve existing products and lead to a number of new product designs previously not possible. Welds with the highest quality can be achieved by friction stir welding. The crushing, stirring and forging action of the FSW tool produces a weld with a finer microstructure than the parent material. The weld metal strength can be, in the as welded condition, in excess of that in the thermo-mechanically affected zone. In the case of annealed materials in the O condition, tensile tests usually fail in the parent material well away from the weld and heat affected zone, as the following results show:

Tensile test data for friction stir welds in 6mm thick aluminium alloy 5083 in the O condition (average of three samples taken over 400mm weld length)

Test 0.2% Proof Stress N/mm2 Max. Stress N/mm2 Elongation % Failure location
Cross weld tensile 141 298 23.0 In parent material
Parent plate tensile 148 298 23.5 Not applicable

The weld properties of fully hardened (cold worked or heat treated) alloys can be further improved by controlling the thermal cycle, in particular by reducing the annealing and overageing effects in the thermo-mechanically affected zone, where the lowest hardness and strength are found after welding. For optimum properties, it would seem that, for the latter, a heat treatment after welding is the best choice, although it is recognised that this will not be a practical solution for many applications. Further studies are necessary and are currently being conducted to explain the complex microstructural aspects of friction stir welds and their corrosion properties.

Fatigue tests on friction stir welds made from 6mm thick 5083-O and 2014-T6 were conducted in tension. The preliminary results are quite exceptional in that they show little scatter and are far better than those of fusion welding processes such as GTA and MIG. The fatigue performance of friction stir welds in alloy 5083-O is comparable to that of the parent material when tested using a stress ratio of 0:1. Despite the fact that the fatigue tested friction stir welds were single pass from one side, the results have substantially exceeded BS 8118 class 35 and the European design recommendation ECCS B3 for fusion welded joints.

Microstructure Classification

The first attempt at classifying microstructures was made by P L Threadgill (Bulletin, March 1997). This work was based solely on information available from aluminium alloys. However, it has become evident from work on other materials that the behaviour of aluminium alloys is not typical of most metallic materials, and therefore the scheme cannot be broadened to encompass all materials. It is therefore proposed that the following revised scheme is used. This has been developed at TWI, but has been discussed with a number of appropriate people in industry and academia, and has also been provisionally accepted by the Friction Stir Welding Licensees Association. The system divides the weld zone into distinct regions as follows:

weld structure diagram

A. Unaffected material
B. Heat affected zone (HAZ)
C. Thermo-mechanically affected zone (TMAZ)
D. Weld nugget (Part of thermo-mechanically affected zone)

Unaffected material or parent metal: This is material remote from the weld, which has not been deformed, and which although it may have experienced a thermal cycle from the weld is not affected by the heat in terms of microstructure or mechanical properties.

Heat affected zone (HAZ): In this region, which clearly will lie closer to the weld centre, the material has experienced a thermal cycle which has modified the microstructure and/or the mechanical properties. However, there is no plastic deformation occurring in this area. In the previous system, this was referred to as the "thermally affected zone". The term heat affected zone is now preferred, as this is a direct parallel with the heat affected zone in other thermal processes, and there is little justification for a separate name.

Thermo-mechanically affected zone (TMAZ): In this region, the material has been plastically deformed by the friction stir welding tool, and the heat from the process will also have exerted some influence on the material. In the case of aluminium, it is possible to get significant plastic strain without recrystallisation in this region, and there is generally a distinct boundary between the recrystallised zone and the deformed zones of the TMAZ. In the earlier classification, these two sub-zones were treated as distinct microstructural regions. However, subsequent work on other materials has shown that aluminium behaves in a different manner to most other materials, in that it can be extensively deformed at high temperature without recrystallisation. In other materials, the distinct recrystallised region (the nugget) is absent, and the whole of the TMAZ appears to be recrystallised. This is certainly true of materials which have no thermally induced phase transformation which will in itself induce recrystallisation without strain, for example pure titanium, b titanium alloys, austenitic stainless steels and copper. In materials such as ferritic steels and a-b titanium alloys (e.g.Ti-6Al-4V), understanding the microstructure is made more difficult by the thermally induced phase transformation, and this can also make the HAZ/TMAZ boundary difficult to identify precisely.

Weld Nugget: The recrystallised area in the TMAZ in aluminium alloys has traditionally been called the nugget. Although this term is descriptive, it is not very scientific. However, its use has become widespread, and as there is no word which is equally simple with greater scientific merit, this term has been adopted. A schematic diagram is shown in the above Figure which clearly identifies the various regions. It has been suggested that the area immediately below the tool shoulder (which is clearly part of the TMAZ) should be given a separate category, as the grain structure is often different here. The microstructure here is determined by rubbing by the rear face of the shoulder, and the material may have cooled below its maximum. It is suggested that this area is treated as a separate sub-zone of the TMAZ.

Friction Stir Welding - Joint geometries

examples of weld geometries The process has been used for the manufacture of butt welds, overlap welds, T-sections, fillet, and corner welds. For each of these joint geometries specific tool designs are required which are being further developed and optimised. Longitudinal butt welds and circumferential lap welds of Al alloy fuel tanks for space flights have been friction stir welded and successfully tested.

The FSW process can also cope with circumferential, annular, non-linear, and three dimensional welds. Since gravity has no influence on the solid-phase welding process, it can be used in all positions, viz:

  • Horizontal
  • Vertical
  • Overhead
  • Orbital

Friction Stir Welding - Applications

Shipbuilding and marine industries

The shipbuilding and marine industries are two of the first industry sectors which have adopted the process for commercial applications. The process is suitable for the following applications:
  • Panels for decks, sides, bulkheads and floors
  • Aluminium extrusions
  • Hulls and superstructures
  • Helicopter landing platforms
  • Offshore accommodation
  • Marine and transport structures
  • Masts and booms, e.g. for sailing boats
  • Refrigeration plant

Aerospace industry

At present the aerospace industry is welding prototype parts by friction stir welding. Opportunities exist to weld skins to spars, ribs, and stringers for use in military and civilian aircraft. This offers significant advantages compared to riveting and machining from solid, such as reduced manufacturing costs and weight savings. Longitudinal butt welds and circumferential lap welds of Al alloy fuel tanks for space vehicles have been friction stir welded and successfully tested. The process could also be used to increase the size of commercially available sheets by welding them before forming. The friction stir welding process can therefore be considered for:
  • Wings, fuselages, empennages
  • Cryogenic fuel tanks for space vehicles
  • Aviation fuel tanks
  • External throw away tanks for military aircraft
  • Military and scientific rockets
  • Repair of faulty MIG welds

Railway industry

The commercial production of high speed trains made from aluminium extrusions which may be joined by friction stir welding has been published. Applications include:
  • High speed trains
  • Rolling stock of railways, underground carriages, trams
  • Railway tankers and goods wagons
  • Container bodies

Land transportation

The friction stir welding process is currently being experimentally assessed by several automotive companies and suppliers to this industrial sector for its commercial application. A joint EWI/TWI Group Sponsored Project is investigating representative joint designs for automotive lightweight structures. Potential applications are:
  • Engine and chassis cradles
  • Wheel rims
  • Attachments to hydroformed tubes
  • Tailored blanks, e.g. welding of different sheet thicknesses
  • Space frames, e.g. welding extruded tubes to cast nodes
  • Truck bodies
  • Tail lifts for lorries
  • Mobile cranes
  • Armour plate vehicles
  • Fuel tankers
  • Caravans
  • Buses and airfield transportation vehicles
  • Motorcycle and bicycle frames
  • Articulated lifts and personnel bridges
  • Skips
  • Repair of aluminium cars
  • Magnesium and magnesium/aluminium joints

Construction industry

The use of portable FSW equipment is possible for:
  • Aluminium bridges
  • Facade panels made from aluminium, copper or titanium
  • Window frames
  • Aluminium pipelines
  • Aluminium reactors for power plants and the chemical industry
  • Heat exchangers and air conditioners
  • Pipe fabrication

Electrical industry

The electrical industry shows increasing interest in the application of friction stir welding for:
  • Electric motor housings
  • Busbars
  • Electrical connectors
  • Encapsulation of electronics

Other industry sectors

Friction stir welding can also be considered for:
  • Refrigeration panels
  • Cooking equipment and kitchens
  • White goods
  • Gas tanks and gas cylinders
  • Connecting of aluminium or copper coils in rolling mills
  • Furniture

Friction Stir Welding - Equipment

Friction stir welding machines are commercially available from several machine manufacturers and include installations for welding up to 16 m lengths. The following companies are licensed by TWI to supply FSW equipment:

Friction stir welding equipment manufacturers

(as at 18 February 2003)

Company Contact
Herkulesgatan 72, Box 8004
SE-402 77 Göteborg
Mr K Lahti
Tel: +46 31 50 92 24
Fax: +46 31 50 94 50
N86 W15763
Riverside Bluff Road
Menomonee Falls, WI 53051-2928, USA
Mr J F Hinrichs
Tel: +1 414 251 7297
Fax: +1 414 251 3007
100 Gemcor Drive
West Seneca
NY 14224, USA
Mr W Lam
Tel: +1 716 674 9300
Fax: +1 716 674 3171
101 Landy Lane
OH 45215, USA
Mr B Bishop
Tel: +1 513 733 5500
Fax: +1 513 733 5604

7-1-1, Omika,
Hitachi, Ibaraki, 319-1292 Japan
Dr M Inagaki
Tel: +81 294 52 7544
Fax: +81 294 52 7545
14000 Technology Drive
Eden Prairie
MN 55344-2290, USA
Mr M J Skinner
Tel: +1 612 937 4653
Fax: +1 612 937 4515
Crown Works
Grantham Road
Halifax, West Yorkshire
Mr Jonathan Martin
Tel: +44 1422 343434
Fax: +44 1422 355157

ESAB SuperStirTM machine FW28

ESAB SuperStir machine FW28 TWI installed an ESAB SuperStirTM machine in its friction welding laboratory, which is being used in the EUREKA EuroStir® Project and for confidential studies. The machine has a vacuum clamping table and can be used for non-linear joint lines.
  • Sheet thickness: 1mm-25mm aluminium
  • Work envelope: Approx 5 x 8 x 1m
  • Maximum down force: Approx 60kN (6t)
  • Maximum rotation speed: 5000rev/min

With ever increasing interest in the process from many industrial sectors, there is the need for continual process development and fabrication of prototype assemblies. Consequently, to meet these needs dedicated equipment has to be developed. A range of modified machine tools now exists at TWI which are briefly reviewed below:

Modular machine FW22 to weld large size specimens

sheet friction stir welding machine A laboratory machine was built in October 1996 to accommodate large sheets and to weld prototype structures. The modular construction of FW22 enables it to be easily enlarged for specimens with even larger dimensions.
  • Sheet thickness: 3mm-15mm aluminium
  • Maximum welding speed: up to 1.2m/min
  • Current maximum sheet size: 3.4m length x 4m width
  • Current maximum working height: 1.15m

Moving gantry machine FW21

friction stir welding machine FW21 The purpose built friction stir welding machine FW21 was built in 1995. This machine uses a moving gantry, with which straight welds up to 2m long can be made. It was used to prove that welding conditions can be achieved which guarantee constant weld quality over the full length of long welds.
  • Sheet thickness: 3mm-15mm aluminium
  • Maximum welding speed: up to 1.0m/min
  • Current maximum sheet size: 2m length x 1.2m width

Heavy duty Friction Stir Welding machines FW18 and FW14

Two existing machines within TWI's Friction and Forge Welding Group have been modified exclusively to weld thick sections by FSW. The following thickness range has been experimentally investigated but the machine are not yet at their limits.
  • Sheet thickness: 5mm-50mm aluminium from one side
    10mm-100mm aluminium from two sides
    5mm thick titanium from one side
  • Power: up to 22kW
  • Welding speed: up to 1m/min

High rotation speed machine FW20

For welding thin aluminium sheets TWI equipped one of its existing machines with an air cooled high speed head which allows rotation speeds of up to 15,000rev/min.
  • Sheet thickness: 1.2mm-12mm aluminium
  • Maximum welding speed: up to 2.6m/min, infinitely variable

Friction Stir Welding demonstrator FW16

TWI's small transportable machine produces annular welds with hexagonal aluminium alloy discs. It has been exhibited on fairs in USA, Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom in recent years. It is an eye catcher which enables visitors to produce their first friction stir weld themselves. It can be operated with 110V or 220V-240V and has been used by TWI and its member companies to demonstrate the process.

Other machines

Portable CRC machine

TWI commissioned a prototype machine which was designed and manufactured by their CRC partners at the Department for Mechanical Engineering of the University of Adelaide, Australia. This machine can be carried and aligned by two operators without the use of a crane or other lifting device. It has been used to weld curved sheets under site conditions in a shipyard.

Commercially available FSW machines

ESAB FSW machine Purpose built friction stir welding machines have been designed, manufactured, and commissioned. One of them, which is installed at Marine Aluminium Aanensen, Norway, is capable of making 16m long welds. It was built by ESAB in Laxå, Sweden and is used for the mass production of panels which are made by joining extruded profiles. The machine and the welding procedure have been approved by Det Norske Veritas and Germanischer Lloyd. Several shorter machines, some of them with CNC systems of up to 5 axes, have been built for experiments and for the production of prototype parts. ESAB demonstrated FSW with a welding speed of 750mm/min in 5mm thick aluminium (6000 series) at the 14th International Welding Fair in Essen. Even friction stir welds with very rigid robots were successful and demonstrated the possibility of non-linear welds.


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