Autofrettage is a metal fabrication technique in which a pressure vessel is subjected to enormous pressure, causing internal portions of the part to yield and resulting in internal compressive residual stresses. The goal of autofrettage is to increase durability of the final product. The technique is commonly used in manufacturing high-pressure pump cylinders, battleship and tank cannon barrels, and fuel injection systems for diesel engines. While some work hardening will occur, that is not the primary mechanism of strengthening.
The start point is a single steel tube of internal diameter slightly less than the desired calibre. The tube is subjected to internal pressure of sufficient magnitude to enlarge the bore and in the process the inner layers of the metal are stretched beyond their elastic limit. This means that the inner layers have been stretched to a point where the steel is no longer able to return to its original shape once the internal pressure in the bore has been removed. Although the outer layers of the tube are also stretched the degree of internal pressure applied during the process is such that they are not stretched beyond their elastic limit. The reason why this is possible is that the stress distribution through the walls of the tube is non-uniform. Its maximum value occurs in the metal adjacent to the source of pressure, decreasing markedly towards the outer layers of the tube. The strain is proportional to the stress applied within elastic limit; therefore the expansion at the outer layers is less than at the bore. Because the outer layers remain elastic they attempt to return to their original shape; however, they are prevented from doing so completely by the now permanently stretched inner layers. The effect is that the inner layers of the metal are put under compression by the outer layers in much the same way as though an outer layer of metal had been shrunk on. The next step is to subject the strained inner layers to low temperature heat treatment which results in the elastic limit being raised to at least the autofrettage pressure employed in the first stage of the process. Finally the elasticity of the barrel can be tested by applying internal pressure once more, but this time care is taken to ensure that the inner layers are not stretched beyond their new elastic limit.
When autofrettage is used for strengthening cannon barrels, the barrel is prebored to a slightly undersized inside diameter, and then a slightly oversized die is pushed through the barrel. The amount of initial underbore and size of the die are calculated to strain the material past its elastic limit into plastic deformation, sufficiently far that the final strained diameter is the final desired bore.
The technique has been applied to the expansion of tubular components down hole in oil and gas wells. The method has been patented by the Norwegian oil service company, READ, which uses it to connect concentric tubular components with sealing and strength properties outlined above.