VERKHNAYA SALDA, Russia — Boeing needs to make its airliners lighter, and for that it needs titanium. And for that lightweight and strong metal, it comes to this small Russian city in the Ural Mountains.
At the Avisma titanium foundry, a once-secret factory that made nuclear-missile parts during the Cold War, titanium ribs for Boeing airplanes are stacked in piles like lumber. In an annex, a Boeing and Avisma joint venture called Ural Boeing Manufacturing grinds forged parts destined for America.
A third of all Boeing landing-gear assemblies are made with titanium beams from Russia.
The Russians make titanium parts that are unseen but no less important on planes like the 787 Dreamliner and the workaday commuter airplane, the 737.
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Boeing buys so much titanium from Russia — it plans $18 billion in purchases over the coming decades — that it now researches new alloys with the Russians. In Moscow, a thousand miles to the west, a team of 1,400 aerospace engineers designs airframes and wings, in part using Russian titanium components.
Titanium’s takeoff is a bright spot for Russia’s struggling aerospace industry. It is as welcome for Boeing.
With the new Dreamliner, Boeing took a leap into new technologies and a wider global network of suppliers. The strategy went spectacularly astray with a new lithium-ion battery made in Japan. The risk of battery fires forced Boeing to ground the entire fleet for months.
But the Russian titanium strategy is paying off. Reliance on Russian titanium, though it comes with geopolitical risks given tensions between the United States and Russia, is making the lightweight metal more economical, so Boeing uses more. Reducing the weight of planes makes them more economical to operate and more attractive to the airlines.
The Avisma factory, deep in a pine forest, makes 35 percent of all titanium for Boeing commercial airplanes.
“There are parts that only we make. Nobody else,” said Mikhail Voevodin, the factory director and a part owner.
Titanium parts are devilishly difficult to make. In the foundry’s forge, gigantic circular furnaces rise along the walls of the main smelting hall, six stories high. Electricity melts the metal in these vacuum tubes.
Gigantic struts, poles and sheets are heated until they glow red and are plunged into water baths, where they are banged with hydraulic hammers weighing 5 tons. They emerge amazingly strong.
“Russia is a critical partner for 787 titanium parts,” Sergey Kravchenko, the director of Boeing’s office in Russia, said in a written response to questions. The factory “has the largest in the world press for titanium forgings and Boeing takes full advantage of this unique capability,” he wrote.
Russians began using titanium in Vostok, the space capsule Yuri Gagarin flew in 1961. By the 1970s, Soviet generals had taken a shine to the metal. A secret program began, requiring incredible resources. In addition to airplanes, the Soviets would make submarines from titanium.
A half-dozen attack submarines came out with hulls that were 30 percent titanium by weight, according to a museum at the factory. Each required more than 2,000 tons of the metal. Light and strong, the subs, called “golden fish,” could travel at 44 knots, or 50 mph, underwater.
This history allowed Boeing to be assured of a stable Russian supply. Besides Russia and other former Soviet states, only four countries smelt it in industrial quantities: the United States, Germany, Japan and China.
The Cold War experience gave Avisma knowledge and astounding capacity. It once produced 90,000 tons a year, more than the rest of the world combined, in the 1970s.
The factory now makes about 32,000 tons, though of a higher grade. Overall, Avisma produces 45 percent of the world’s aerospace titanium.
Cooperation between Boeing and the Russians tightened after 2007, when Russian Technologies, a government conglomerate, took over the foundry. Russian Technologies sought to revive the military industry by finding civilian buyers for dual-use products.
It was eager to sell to Boeing as well as to Airbus, Boeing’s main rival. The factory also supplies Embraer, Bombardier and engine makers.
For Boeing, the alliance with Russia’s aerospace industry extends beyond titanium purchases. Supported by a U.S. government worried that unemployed Russian aerospace and rocket engineers were working for rogue states, Boeing opened a design center in Moscow in the 1990s.
That center employs engineers on short-term leave from the Russian companies Ilyushin, Sukhoi and Khrunichev, a maker of the space capsules and satellites.
Much of the value is created in the smelting of alloys. Pure titanium costs about $7 a pound. Blended with zirconium, nickel and other alloys for aerospace parts, however, it can cost more than $150 a pound. The Moscow tech center has three patents for such alloys.
(Most consumer goods of titanium, like golf clubs and mountain-climbing ice axes, are made in China of cheaper, unalloyed metal.)
Avisma is the rare profitable Russian manufacturer. Russian Technologies sold a controlling stake to managers last year; Avisma’s shares trade on Russia’s Micex stock exchange. Its market capitalization hovers around $2 billion.
Avisma also still works for the Russian military. In a warehouse of rocket and airplane parts, huge titanium body rings for a Bulova rocket, Russia’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile, are stacked in a big uneven heap.
Three years ago, Avisma started a sideline in medical titanium for implants, which quickly grew to capture about a quarter of this specialty market worldwide.
It is all the same for the factory, director Voevodin said. The same process creates stamped parts.
The only difference is that once it comes out of this gigantic Russia forge in the mountains, “it goes into a person, not an airplane,” he said.