Ultrasound metal forming

It may or may not be used to find life on Mars, but technology developed for a space mission could soon be used to make drinks cans.

This is the belief of UK engineering firm Magna Parva, which has developed a technique for controlling ultrasound that could be as readily applied for drilling into the surface of Mars as it could for forming beverage cans.

Magna Parva engineers have worked at ESA for the last 2.5 years on techniques for using ultrasonic resonances at the tips of drills for breaking down rock. Initially, the technology was developed as a drill tool for the ExoMars rover. Its use on the mission is still unclear, but Magna Parva has already found a terrestrial application in that of beverage-can manufacturing.

Andrew Bowyer, managing director of Magna Parva, said his company is in discussions with a major can manufacturer on deploying the technology for metal forming. By using ultrasound in the canforming process, he added, there is potential to reduce raw material usage by 12 per cent.

Bowyer said can manufacturers usually use relatively thick sheets of aluminium because the forming process is extremely ’aggressive’ and could easily break or crinkle thin sheets of metal.

The Magna Parva solution first applies ultrasonic vibrations to the die, a tool that manufacturers use to thump out the initial part of the can, which is a stubby metal patty known as the ’cup’. It was found that sheets of aluminium pushed through a vibrating die move easier, mitigating breaking or crinkling.

As the cup travels down the line, Magna Parva engineers saw other opportunities for applying ultrasonics; from the ironing process, which stretches the cup, to the necking of the can and end formation. Bowyer said ultrasonics have been considered in can forming before, but the challenge was controlling the forces in a setting outside the laboratory.

’No one has been able to do it on a production line because a factory machine makes 250 cans a second,’ he added. ’A factory could have lines of 50, 60 machines. It’s just frightening numbers.’

Bowyer also said ultrasonic metal forming could be operational in three years and manufacturers will notice cost savings due to reduced material usage over the following decade. ’With 267 billion cans used a year, you’re looking at £100m annual savings,’ he added.