Stress Relief Basics
By S. Hornsey B.Sc VSR (Africa) cc August 2004
Structural designers and engineers must be aware of residual stresses in fabrications and of the commonmethods used to relieve these unwanted stresses.
Stress – the sources are numerous, but fortunately there are a variety of ways to relieve it. No I’m not talkingabout the hectic pace of our personal lives, although it certainly can apply, but instead I’m referring to thefabrication and machining of metals. Residual stress is an internal stress that is not a result of externallyapplied loads. If stress build up in the structure is excessive, the fatigue life of the metal is considerablyreduced.
Importance of Stress Relief
Cold working, hot rolling, grinding, machining operations, quenching treatments, welding and thermalcutting can all induce high levels of residual stresses into metal. The nature of residual stress, itsdistribution, and prediction of the level within a metal is a complex and not completely understood phenomenon, but you can be sure it is present.Welding in particular, because of the rapid thermal expansion and contraction created along a verylocalised area, is a prime source of residual stress. A very high heat source is applied to a small arearelative to the cooler surrounding area. That point, where the arc is directed is rapidly heated fromambient temperatures to a temperature that can often be in excess of 4,500
C. The metal expands as it is brought to a molten state. As the molten weld pool solidifies along the joint, there is resistance to itsshrinkage by the already solidified weld metal and the unmelted base metal adjacent to the weld. Thisresistance creates a tensile strain in the longitudinal and transverse directions of the weld. Distortion isoften the result, and if the stress is excessive, buckling, stress corrosion cracking and a shortened fatiguelife is often possible.All welds will have some residual stress, and it can never be totally reduced to zero strain. But the level of stress can be very high depending upon certain conditions. Heat input, base material thickness, rate of cooling, the restraint of the component and of course the welding process all play major roles in the levelof residual stress induced into a component.
Thermal or Non-thermal
There are two major approaches to stress relieving; thermal and mechanical. A major difference betweenthe two is thermal treatment, which in addition to relieving stress, will also effect a metallurgical changein the material, which is often unwanted. A postweld heat treatment entails uniform heating of theweldments, holding at temperature, and then a carefully controlled cooling.As the base metal becomes hotter, it becomes weaker. Once a certain temperature is reached, there is areduction in the material yield strength, and it is thereby relieved. The effect often visibly manifests itself in the partial straightening of a distorted component.For carbon and low alloy steels, stress relieving is commonly performed in the range of 570
Calthough many specifications call for temperatures of up to 1050
C. The temperature at which stress relief occurs varies from 100
C up to 500
C according to the particular metal concerned. In general the higher the melting point, the higher is the temperature for stress relieving. The time at which the component isheld at temperature is dependant upon the thickness of the material and its chemical composition.A commonly used method of stress relieving weldments is by postweld heat treatment its effectiveness isdependant on the control exercised in bringing the component to temperature and then its subsequentcooling. It therefore should only be performed by those knowledgeable in its application.
Shot peening is a cold working method that reduces stress. Small round balls, or shot, are projected ontothe surface of the component. The shot imparts small indentations into the surface which induces acompressive stress. The tensile residual stresses at the surface of the component must overcome thecompressive stress for a fatigue crack to initiate. If properly applied the compression works to counteract