Welding is a process of conjoining two or more materials together through the use of heat application. Typically, this requires an external or internal entity, such as heaters or friction, that causes the surfaces of such materials to melt together and fuse through cooling. Although welding has a long rooted history in use, it was the end of the 19th century in which we saw multiple modern welding techniques come about, allowing us to achieve many different industrial and construction applications with such power.
Typically, welding is most widely known for its use on metals, allowing for the construction of robust joints and parts that may be utilized for a variety of applications including bridges, automobiles, and various infrastructure. During the first World War, military powers began to experiment with arc welding, applying it to the construction of aircraft and aircraft fuselages. While this method proved useful during that time and for such components, the joints of aircraft in recent years are almost entirely comprised of riveted joints. While welded joints are possible for aircraft, there are various reasons why many manufacturers forgo welding altogether for rivets.
A rivet is a type of permanent mechanical fastener, and they typically consist of a smooth cylindrical shaft and a head on one end. Fasteners in general are components that are utilized to conjoin two or more components together, and the rivet may do so by having its tail end passed through preformed holes of materials. Once done, a special tool such as a rivet gun or hammer is used to deform the tail end of the rivet, causing the shaft to deform and expand, resulting in a second head that locks the rivet in place. With a head on both sides of the assembly, rivets may support both tension and shear loads, mostly excelling at the latter.
For their use on aircraft, rivets are commonly installed to secure exterior components and aircraft body components, including the frame, skin, spars, ribs, and more. Aircraft rivets provide high reliability and strength for aircraft applications, and there may be a plethora of rivets used across the entirety of the assembly. Despite welding also creating the ability to conjoin components together for various uses, rivets serve as the more reliable option due to their heat tolerance properties, their strength, and their ease of inspection.
In general, most aircraft are currently constructed with the use of aluminum materials due to their optimal strength to weight ratios. Aluminum is also fairly common and inexpensive, making it a very cost efficient material for construction. By utilizing aluminum for aircraft body components, manufacturers can create a much more fuel efficient aircraft that is lighter than those that utilize other metals. Despite these various benefits, aluminum is not the most tolerant of heat, losing strength as temperatures increase. With a melting point of approximately 1,260 degrees Fahrenheit, aluminum loses half of its strength at 600 degrees. With high heat being generated by aircraft engines and other flight factors, aircraft exterior components may lose their strength as they operate, leading to a risk of welding integrity loss if such a method is utilized. As rivets provide such a strong binding and are much less affected by intense heat, such fasteners are more commonly utilized for aircraft construction for high integrity and reliability.
When aircraft materials are conjoined through the use of welding, only the surfaces that are melted and fused are joined together. With riveting, strength is added to the exterior of each side of the assembly with the heads, as well as creates a connection from the inside to allow for a more durable joint. This results in a much more reliable and stronger assembly for components as compared to welding. As aircraft often perform at extreme altitudes and high speeds, such assembly methods can withstand the intense stressors that aircraft joints are subjected to during normal operation.
Lastly, riveted joints are much easier to inspect as compared to welded joints, as a quick visual inspection of fasteners may be done to ensure that the connection is secure and integrity has not been compromised. With welded joints, on the other hand, specific machines or devices must be used to test joined components due to their method of fusion, and there is no way to easily visually inspect the assembly. As inspection and maintenance is conducted often and is critical to the safety and performance of an aircraft, manufacturing companies often prefer riveting to ease the production and maintenance process for many aircraft.
Although there are many reasons for manufacturing companies to prefer riveted joints over welding joints, that does not mean that welding is not used at all for aircraft. In fact, many components implemented within the finalized aircraft utilize welding for fusing together metals for various uses. With methods such as gas metal welding, rocket fuel and oxidizer tanks may be fused together, as well as vanes. With gas tungsten arc welding, jet engine exhaust housings, heat exchanger cores, louvres, and other similar components are assembled for their use on different aircraft. Flash welding is utilized to join together rings for jet engines, as well as assemble aluminum landing gear which is implemented across many aircraft types. Lastly, friction welding is another method in which turbine engine shaft and case components are assembled. While riveting may prove the most effective for creating a reliable aircraft exterior that can withstand the stressors that aircraft are subject to, welding does retain some uses and benefits for the assembly of internal components and structures.
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