Welding, technique used for joining metallic parts usually through the application of heat. This technique was discovered during efforts to manipulate iron into useful shapes. Welded blades were developed in the 1st millennium ce, the most famous being those produced by Arab armourers at Damascus, Syria. The process of carburization of iron to produce hard steel was known at this time, but the resultant steel was very brittle. The welding technique—which involved interlayering relatively soft and tough iron with high-carbon material, followed by hammer forging—produced a strong, tough blade.
In modern times the improvement in iron-making techniques, especially the introduction of cast iron, restricted welding to the blacksmith and the jeweler. Other joining techniques, such as fastening by bolts or rivets, were widely applied to new products, from bridges and railway engines to kitchen utensils.
Modern fusion welding processes are an outgrowth of the need to obtain a continuous joint on large steel plates. Rivetting had been shown to have disadvantages, especially for an enclosed container such as a boiler. Gas welding, arc welding, and resistance welding all appeared at the end of the 19th century. The first real attempt to adopt welding processes on a wide scale was made during World War I. By 1916 the oxyacetylene process was well developed, and the welding techniques employed then are still used. The main improvements since then have been in equipment and safety. Arc welding, using a consumable electrode, was also introduced in this period, but the bare wires initially used produced brittle welds. A solution was found by wrapping the bare wire with asbestos and an entwined aluminum wire. The modern electrode, introduced in 1907, consists of a bare wire with a complex coating of minerals and metals. Arc welding was not universally used until World War II, when the urgent need for rapid means of construction for shipping, power plants, transportation, and structures spurred the necessary development work.
Resistance welding, invented in 1877 by Elihu Thomson, was accepted long before arc welding for spot and seam joining of sheet. Butt welding for chain making and joining bars and rods was developed during the 1920s. In the 1940s the tungsten-inert gas process, using a nonconsumable tungsten electrode to perform fusion welds, was introduced. In 1948 a new gas-shielded process utilized a wire electrode that was consumed in the weld. More recently, electron-beam welding, laser welding, and several solid-phase processes such as diffusion bonding, friction welding, and ultrasonic joining have been developed.
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A weld can be defined as a coalescence of metals produced by heating to a suitable temperature with or without the application of pressure, and with or without the use of a filler material.
In fusion welding a heat source generates sufficient heat to create and maintain a molten pool of metal of the required size. The heat may be supplied by electricity or by a gas flame. Electric resistance welding can be considered fusion welding because some molten metal is formed.
Solid-phase processes produce welds without melting the base material and without the addition of a filler metal. Pressure is always employed, and generally some heat is provided. Frictional heat is developed in ultrasonic and friction joining, and furnace heating is usually employed in diffusion bonding.
The electric arc used in welding is a high-current, low-voltage discharge generally in the range 10–2,000 amperes at 10–50 volts. An arc column is complex but, broadly speaking, consists of a cathode that emits electrons, a gas plasma for current conduction, and an anode region that becomes comparatively hotter than the cathode due to electron bombardment. A direct current (DC) arc is usually used, but alternating current (AC) arcs can be employed.
Total energy input in all welding processes exceeds that which is required to produce a joint, because not all the heat generated can be effectively utilized. Efficiencies vary from 60 to 90 percent, depending on the process; some special processes deviate widely from this figure. Heat is lost by conduction through the base metal and by radiation to the surroundings.
Most metals, when heated, react with the atmosphere or other nearby metals. These reactions can be extremely detrimental to the properties of a welded joint. Most metals, for example, rapidly oxidize when molten. A layer of oxide can prevent proper bonding of the metal. Molten-metal droplets coated with oxide become entrapped in the weld and make the joint brittle. Some valuable materials added for specific properties react so quickly on exposure to the air that the metal deposited does not have the same composition as it had initially. These problems have led to the use of fluxes and inert atmospheres.
In fusion welding the flux has a protective role in facilitating a controlled reaction of the metal and then preventing oxidation by forming a blanket over the molten material. Fluxes can be active and help in the process or inactive and simply protect the surfaces during joining.
Inert atmospheres play a protective role similar to that of fluxes. In gas-shielded metal-arc and gas-shielded tungsten-arc welding an inert gas—usually argon—flows from an annulus surrounding the torch in a continuous stream, displacing the air from around the arc. The gas does not chemically react with the metal but simply protects it from contact with the oxygen in the air.
The metallurgy of metal joining is important to the functional capabilities of the joint. The arc weld illustrates all the basic features of a joint. Three zones result from the passage of a welding arc: (1) the weld metal, or fusion zone, (2) the heat-affected zone, and (3) the unaffected zone. The weld metal is that portion of the joint that has been melted during welding. The heat-affected zone is a region adjacent to the weld metal that has not been welded but has undergone a change in microstructure or mechanical properties due to the heat of welding. The unaffected material is that which was not heated sufficiently to alter its properties.
Weld-metal composition and the conditions under which it freezes (solidifies) significantly affect the ability of the joint to meet service requirements. In arc welding, the weld metal comprises filler material plus the base metal that has melted. After the arc passes, rapid cooling of the weld metal occurs. A one-pass weld has a cast structure with columnar grains extending from the edge of the molten pool to the centre of the weld. In a multipass weld, this cast structure may be modified, depending on the particular metal that is being welded.
The base metal adjacent to the weld, or the heat-affected zone, is subjected to a range of temperature cycles, and its change in structure is directly related to the peak temperature at any given point, the time of exposure, and the cooling rates. The types of base metal are too numerous to discuss here, but they can be grouped in three classes: (1) materials unaffected by welding heat, (2) materials hardened by structural change, (3) materials hardened by precipitation processes.
Welding produces stresses in materials. These forces are induced by contraction of the weld metal and by expansion and then contraction of the heat-affected zone. The unheated metal imposes a restraint on the above, and as contraction predominates, the weld metal cannot contract freely, and a stress is built up in the joint. This is generally known as residual stress, and for some critical applications must be removed by heat treatment of the whole fabrication. Residual stress is unavoidable in all welded structures, and if it is not controlled bowing or distortion of the weldment will take place. Control is exercised by welding technique, jigs and fixtures, fabrication procedures, and final heat treatment.
There are a wide variety of welding processes. Several of the most important are discussed below.