The World’s Largest Welding Tool

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Written by: James Wilkey







Mention aluminum to most people and a flimsy soda can or aluminum foil is probably one of the first things that comes to mind.

While it’s true that aluminum is the stuff of foil, the material’s durability and light weight make it one of the most critical metals of the space age. Although it might not be comforting to think of aluminum as your only defense against the lethal void of space, NASA’s advanced aluminum-lithium alloy has proven to be the best design for its latest generation of manned spaced vehicle.

To this end, NASA has developed new terrestrial welding equipment that has revolutionized aerospace manufacturing, and stands as a titanic monument to the philosophy of measure twice, cut once.

Welding in space is certainly possible in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, the process isn’t always easy, as the crew of the Soyuz 6 can attest. Although laser welding provides a means of exacting emergency repairs regardless of gravity, temperature or air, the ideal spacecraft is obviously one that only needs to be welded together the first time.

Orion and SLS photo for blog
NASA’s Friction Stir Welding (FSW) tools produce high quality and high strength welds in the aluminum alloys used to fabricate the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket that will eventually take a four person crew to Mars.

Go Big or Stay Home
In 2014, NASA unveiled the Vertical Assembly Center in the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. At 170-feet tall and 78-feet wide, it is the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world. It is also part of a family of state-of-the-art tools designed to weld the core stage of the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built for mission deep in space.

The Vertical Assembly Center lifts components of the SLS rocket up and down its imposing height using a large mobile ring. The ring moves along rails in order to position the components quickly and correctly so they can be welded in place. The Assembly Center uses friction stir welding, the preferred welding technique for joining aluminum in aerospace manufacturing, to join the rocket’s components into a single vehicle.

In March of 2015, the Vertical Assembly Center’s manufacturer, Boeing, discovered that its rails were slightly misaligned, setting production with the device behind by about 3 months. The misalignment may have been caused by a shift in the notoriously soft Louisiana soil that makes up the foundation of the Assembly Center. However, the possibility of a simple manufacturing error hasn’t been ruled out yet. Whatever the cause, the setback is relatively minor, and the SLS rocket is still on schedule to launch in 2018.

If you’d like to read more about exciting developments in welding, or looking for welding resources, we invite you to visit AWS Learning, where you can find virtual conferences, online courses and other digital tools to help you expand your welding career.

4 thoughts on “The World’s Largest Welding Tool”

  1. This a good article, it illustrates how vast the welding field is. I have had the opportunity to work on fuel tanks for previous space shuttles. I also spent a few years working on aluminum projects for a defense contractor. Aluminum has come a long way and advances are on going in aluminum technology, as well as the processes used to weld and cut it. I have also had the opportunity to use friction stir welding on aluminum, all though it is an expensive process, it does a phenomenal job fusing aluminum.

  2. This is a good article. I have had the opportunity to weld on previous space shuttle fuel tanks. This article shows how vast and large the welding field is. Aluminum has come a long ways in it’s different alloys and has proven it ability to meet rigorous demands for many applications. I have also had the opportunity to use the friction stir welding system on aluminum. It produces some of the highest quality welds I have ever seen. I work for a defense contactor for 4 years designing and building aluminum projects and I have seen first hand how strong some of the aluminum alloys are. Thank you for posting this article, I will share this with my welding students, both high school and college.

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