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Kristina Barker/Journal staff Jim Hutto, president of H.F. Webster, explains the process of friction stir welding while holding a sample of aluminum that has been welded. H.F. Webster will receive $1.2 million in the 2010 defense bill. Federal grants have been used by the company to do research and engineering work, but the company is not yet doing mass repairs or production for the military. H.F. Webster plans to build a friction stir welder at its Dyess Avenue plant in Rapid City.

Jim Hutto is excited and enthusiastic as he shows visitors an aluminum plate that he says demonstrates why his company, H.F. Webster, can succeed.

Hutto is trying to eat his lunch, but he manages to eat just one french fry as he explains that a cutting-edge technology called friction stir welding creates much stronger welds than conventional ones and can be used to fix worn out parts of B-1B Lancer bombers and other military equipment.

Clad in jeans and cowboy boots, Hutto, a former B-1 pilot and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a partner in H.F. Webster, along with Trish Torpey and Rob Hrabe, another retired B-1 pilot who also spent plenty of time at Ellsworth. Hutto and Hrabe are both engineers.

Friction stir welding, invented in England more than a decade ago, is a way to repair parts or build new ones.

It works with a spinning tool that runs between the parts to be joined.

The resulting friction heats and softens the metal but doesn’t melt it.                Aluminum parts up to                     3 inches thick can be joined, Hutto says.

Technically, it’s not welding, because it heats metal to only 80 percent of its melting temperature.

Because it uses less heat, there is less loss of the metal’s key characteristics, Hutto says. Bottom line: It’s stronger than conventional welding, he said.

H.F. Webster, a three-year-old company in north Rapid City, has done or designed repairs as demonstrations.

“We’ve got parts flying out on B-1s, and we do work for Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps depot systems,” Hutto said.

But the company isn’t doing mass repairs or production for the military yet.

So far, most of its work has been engineering to             design such repairs or to   determine whether such  repairs will work.

H.F. Webster has been getting federal grants to do this research and engineering. Its most recent grant, $1.2 million to continue work to prolong the lives of aging weapons systems, came in the 2010 defense appropriations bill.

In many cases, such original parts were built by contractors that no longer are in business, Hutto says. Designing, milling and producing new parts could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

One current project is to determine whether friction stir welding can repair cracks developing on fuel cooling scoops on B-1s. Fixing the scoops using friction stir welding could be done for a fraction of the cost of making new ones.

H.F. Webster also acts as a broker for high-tech solutions to military parts-wear problems.

If Hutto and his engineers can’t design a repair using friction stir welding, they may refer the problem to another Rapid City firm, RPM & Associates, which uses laser deposition for such work. Or they may refer the problem to another company in Rapid City or elsewhere.

Hutto and his partners hope to move into production and manufacturing, adding to their engineering services, much like RPM has.

H.F. Webster doesn’t have its own friction stir welder, but it has an agreement to use the one at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.  But Webster plans to develop its own friction stir welding system at its 10,000-square-foot building on Dyess Avenue, Hutto said.

The company now has 7 employees and hopes to hire 11 more over the next three years, including conventional welders, machinists and fabricators, Hutto said.

Most of H.F. Webster’s revenue comes from military-related work.

Hutto, however, wants to follow RPM’s lead and diversify into commercial work, including using friction stir welding for repair and fabrication for the coal industry in Wyoming, for over-the-road trailer decks, ship decks and pleasure boats.

Some work has come from unexpected quarters. H.F. Webster was asked by a sporting goods company if it could make sport-utility trailers that can be used to haul motorcycles, kayaks and sporting equipment. It has used stir welding to make a mockup bed for the trailers.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8415 or steve.miller@rapidcityjournal.com.

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