Atmosphere versus Vacuum Through-Carburized Boron Steels

In this article we will compare two through-carburized boron steels which were both atmosphere and vacuum heat treated. As in previous axial fatigue tests; approximately 30 test samples were prepared to ensure there were three replicate tests at a minimum of 6 strain levels to develop a complete fatigue curve. These test bars were finished prior to the carburizing heat treatment with no subsequent grinding. The through-carburizing cycle of 26 hours at 927 °C does not completely through carburize the 0.2 inch gage length diameter, but typically leaves the core hardness at or above 55 HRC. The two steel grades are SAE 41B17 and SAE 86B20. The chemical composition of each is shown in Table 1. The primary difference between the two steels is the nickel content, which is significantly lower in the SAE 41B17 grade as it is a residual element.

Table 1
Table 1

The mechanical properties, fatigue strength and hardness are shown in Table 2. Iterations #73 and #75 were atmosphere carburized while iterations #79 and #83 were vacuum carburized. The elongation and reduction of area is 1% or less for all iterations with the exception of iteration #79. This iteration has the lowest surface (case) hardness at 653 Brinell or 60 HRC. The remaining iterations are 665-710 Brinell or 61-63 HRC. All of these hardness values, including iteration #79, would be acceptable for a typical carburized component.

Table 2Table 2

A graphical representation of the yield and ultimate strength, as well as the fatigue strength, is shown in Figure 1. The fatigue strength is the stress level which provides one million cycles during strain controlled axial fatigue testing. Iteration #79 has the lowest hardness, however, the yield and ultimate strength is approximately 40% greater than the others. This indicates a lower hardness may be beneficial in improving fatigue properties. While the fatigue strength does vary from 235-536 MPa for these tests there is no clear cause (chemistry or carburizing method) for the variation and is considered to be within normal fatigue result variation.

Figure 1 - New
Figure 1

Plots of surface hardness versus ultimate strength and hardness versus fatigue strength are shown in Figure 2. The plot shows no correlation between hardness and fatigue strength. This was also observed in the prior blog article, “Strength and Fatigue Life versus Carbon Content at High Hardness (60 HRC).” Obviously, there is a relationship between hardness and fatigue strength (see previous blog article, “Hardness versus Fatigue Strength”) but it has considerable variability and is not evident here. Figure 2 shows a significant increase in ultimate strength when the hardness decreases to 653 Brinell. This is in agreement with the previous blog article, “Hardness versus Strength,” where strength increased linearly with hardness to just below 600 Brinell and then decreased rapidly with any further increase in hardness. SAE J413 teaches us strength should increase with hardness beyond 600 Brinell. However, this does not appear to be true with high carbon carburized steel.

Figure 2 - NewFigure 2

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A Look Ahead at Bar Fatigue in 2018

The SMDI Bar Steel Fatigue subcommittee is celebrating 20 years of working together to provide the industry with much needed fatigue data for critical applications. Past work includes the completion of over 200 iterations; 164 released to the public. This work continues in 2018 by working on four studies for key ground vehicle OEMs and suppliers that comprise the subcommittee. The subcommittee concentrates test efforts on those steel grades and process combinations used in safety critical components. Test plans for 2018 include:

  1. Completion of Phase XIII; rotating bending fatigue tests on both SAE 8620 and SAE 9310 steel. The tests results will be compared to previous axial fatigue results for the same steels.
  2. Completion of Phase XIV; SAE 9310 gas carburized to both shallow (5% of bar diameter) and deep (10% of bar diameter) case depths.
  3. Initiation of Phase XVI by testing a SAE 4120 steel modified to be vacuum carburized at high temperatures up to 1900 °F. The test results will be compared to previous iterations of the same grade (not modified) to determine if the high vacuum carburizing temperature and accelerated cycle time is an acceptable process alternative.
  4. Initiation of Phase XVII by testing SAE 8620 steel at elevated temperatures to determine long term durability within harsh environments such as engines and transmissions. The material will be tested at room temperature, 350 °F and 675 °F. The test results will be used to validate formulas currently used in the industry to estimate elevated temperature performance.

Further blog discussions on all of these test phases will be provided when the data becomes available to the public. If you are interested in these results earlier, committee membership is available (contact

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2017 Bar Fatigue Blog – Year in Review

During 2017 the SMDI Bar Steel Fatigue sub-committee continued work on numerous studies, test protocols, as requested by the committee members who represent key ground vehicle OEMs and suppliers. The committee continues to concentrate test efforts on those steel grades and process combinations used in safety critical components. Accomplishments in 2017 include:

  1. Phase XI of the test protocol was completed. The material tested in this phase was SAE 8620 with carburized case depths of 5% (shallow) or 10% (deep). The material was subjected to the standard axial fatigue tests and additionally to four-point bending fatigue tests to compare and correlate results. As in previous phases both the axial and bending tests included overload stress conditions. As part of the study, members of the committee also provided residual stress measurements of selected samples.
  2. The team also completed Test Phase XV. DIN 16MnCr5 steel at carburized case depths of 5% and 10% was evaluated. As in Phase XI the material was tested in both axial and bending fatigue to compare and correlate results. As part of the study a member of the committee completed failed sample fracture analysis to track the location and cause of fatigue failures.
  3. Rotating bending fatigue tests were completed on SAE 8620 and DIN 20MnCr5 steel as part of Test Phase XIII. These tests were run to compare and correlate results to previous axial fatigue results.
  4. The sixth update of the on-line publically available database to 164 steel/process iterations. An additional 30 iterations are being held confidentially to the committee members who fund the research. These iterations represent 13 completed test protocols.

Further blog discussions on all of these test phases will be completed at a later date when the data becomes available to the public. If you are interested in these results earlier, consider becoming a committee member. For more information visit or contact David Anderson.


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Carburized Case-Core Samples

In this article we will examine Iterations #62, #63 and #70. These are carburized samples with a case/core composite to simulate an actual carburized part. Until now, all of the carburized samples we have looked at have been through carburized or nearly through carburized. The intent is to provide fatigue properties of the carburized case (through carburized) and for the noncarburized core region (via quench and temper heat treatment) to predict fatigue life of a case/core composite. This assumes the microstructure of the case is homogeneous as is the microstructure of the core.

The results for the case-core samples are shown in the table below, along with a summary of the previous through carburized data. Two of the case-core iterations were made from different heats of SAE 8620 steel (iterations #62 and #70), and one was made from SAE 4320 steel (iteration #63). The effective case depths were 0.024 inches (20%) for iteration #62, 0.011 inches (10%) for iteration #63 and 0.022 inches (20%) for iteration #70. The average ultimate strength is 1715 MPa, and the average yield strength is 1368 MPa. These results are high and they are consistent, compared to the through-carburized data we have previously viewed. In addition, the elongation, and reduction of area are also high, compared to the through-carburized samples. The fatigue strength (strength at 10^6 cycles) is also higher and more consistent than we have seen before. The fatigue ratio is about the same, however the consistency is better. The average surface hardness for the case-core samples is lower than either of the through-carburized groups. The case-core samples were ground after carburizing, which is the reason for the lower hardness. The carburized case was relatively thin, and the grinding process removed the hard outer layer. These samples are below the minimum surface hardness specification of 57 or 58 HRC, normally used with carburizing. The core hardness of the case-core samples is significantly lower than the through-carburized samples, which is expected due to the nature of the heat treatment. However, the core hardness is at the upper end of what is typical of a carburized component. It is possible the core hardness may have an effect on fatigue strength, as the sample with the highest core hardness has the greatest ultimate tensile strength. However, with only three samples this cannot be confirmed. The case depth, within the range used, does not appear to have any significant effect on strength. Again, more test results are necessary to make a firm conclusion.

SMDI Blog 39 Table

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Mechanical Properties and Fatigue Strength of the Early Through-Carburized Samples

In this article we will examine the mechanical properties and fatigue strength of the early through-carburized iterations in the SMDI fatigue program. During this time period the test bars were typically ground and polished after carburizing in order to eliminate any distortion as a result of the heat treatment. The through-carburizing heat treatment was a 24-26 hour cycle at 1700 oF (927 oC). This cycle did not completely through carburize the 0.200 inch (5.08 mm) gage diameter to a consistent high carbon level but typically left the core hardness at or above 55 HRC.

The mechanical properties and the fatigue strength, defined as the stress at one million cycles, are shown in Table 1. Additional information in the table includes: the ratio of the fatigue strength to the ultimate tensile strength; surface and core hardness; and the laboratory where samples were machined and tested. Most of the elongation values are less than 2% which is reasonable for these high hardness, high carbon iterations. However, the elongation of iterations 48 and 54 was significantly higher at 12.5% and 7.7% respectively. In addition, the ultimate tensile strength of iteration 48 was considerably greater than any of the others at 2,227 MPa. Iterations 48 and 54 were both tested at the University of Toledo while most of the others were tested at the University of Waterloo. Both of these iterations were made from 4620 steel, which as a medium nickel steel (1.8% nickel) is expected to have increased ductility. However, the 4320 steel is also a medium nickel steel and 9310 is a high nickel steel (3.3% nickel) and neither of these had ductility comparable to the 4620.

Metallurgically speaking the surface hardness of iteration 48 is lower than most other samples except for iteration 50 which is the 4320 sample. This could indicate an elevated tempering temperature was used on iteration 48 after carburization which would tend to increase the ductility. However, this would not explain the high elongation on iteration 54 and the low elongation on iteration 50. The cause of the high strength and high ductility of the two 4620 samples could be related to the amount of stock that was removed from the surface during the grinding process. If more stock was removed from the surface of these two samples the carbon content at the final test specimen surface would be reduced which would increase the strength and ductility. It is also possible these two iterations were simply carburized with a lower carbon potential.

SMDI Blog 37 Table 1
Table 1

Figure 1 provides a graphical representation of the ultimate tensile strength data. It is obvious the first 4620 iteration (48) has an ultimate tensile strength which is greater than any of the other samples. The first three iterations on the left of the chart were not ground, but only polished after carburizing.  These iterations averaged about 1200 MPa in ultimate tensile strength. The tensile strength of the remaining iterations, without the 1117 steel, averaged about 1700 MPa. If we ignore the two 4620 iterations with high elongation the average ultimate strength is still above 1600 MPa. This indicates grinding after carburizing has a beneficial effect on the test specimen strength. The 1117 iteration (52) had a lower strength level which is likely a result of the high level of manganese sulfide inclusions as well as the fact this was a plain carbon steel with no alloy content.

The two 8695 samples are the best representation of a through-carburized material since they were produced with 0.95% carbon through the cross section. They were produced as 100 pound vacuum melted heats which were forged into test samples then machined and carburized. The carburization was not used to introduce any more carbon but rather to introduce intergranular oxidation (IGO) at the surface. The first 8695 iteration (40) was copper plated prior to carburizing to prevent IGO at the surface. Without IGO the ultimate tensile strength is around 1500 MPa, and with IGO it is around 1000 MPa. This difference may be related to the IGO or possibly the carburization heat treatment. The alloy content of the different steels does not appear to make much difference in strength, except for the 1117 steel. The 9310 steel has the highest alloy content followed by the 4320 and then the 4620. These grades do not have a higher ultimate tensile strength than the more common grades such as 8620, 5120 and 8822.

SMDI Blog 37 Figure 1Figure 1

Figure 2 is a graphical representation of the fatigue strength data. The 4320 iteration (50) had the highest fatigue strength, while the lowest was the 1117 iteration (52). The first 8695 iteration (40), without the IGO, had a lower fatigue strength than the second one (41), with the IGO. This indicates fatigue strength does not necessarily correlate with the ultimate strength and in this case the IGO does not appear to be detrimental toward fatigue life. However, the first three iterations, along with the 1117 iteration, have lower fatigue strengths than the other iterations and do correlate to the ultimate strength.


SMDI Blog 37 Figure 2.jpgFigure 2


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Hardness versus Fatigue Strength

In the previous article we examined the relationship between hardness and tensile strength for the AISI fatigue database iterations through 141. As the hardness increased the tensile strength also increased for a majority of the steels and the relationship was linear. However, with the high hardness, high carbon, carburized case steels there was a significant variation in strength in the 600-750 Brinell hardness range. The variation in strength was 881-2227 MPa, which is a difference of 2.5:1.

In this article we examine the relationship between hardness and fatigue strength for the same samples. The fatigue strength is defined as the stress level where one million cycles is achieved. The data is shown in Figure 1. The curve looks much like the previous hardness versus strength curve. There is a linear correlation between hardness and fatigue strength to 600 Brinell. However, there seems to be more scatter or variation in the hardness versus fatigue strength curve. At a hardness of 600-750 Brinell there is a large variation in fatigue strength primarily due to the carburized case samples. The fatigue strength range is 235-819 MPa, which is a difference of 3.5:1 between the high and low iterations.

SMDI Blog 36 Figure 1Figure 1

The fatigue ratio is the fatigue strength divided by the ultimate strength. The fatigue ratio versus hardness data is shown in Figure 2. The fatigue strength does not appear to be a fixed percentage of the ultimate tensile strength throughout the entire hardness range. At 200 Brinell the fatigue ratio is approximately 0.45, while at 700 Brinell it is 0.35. As the hardness and strength increases the fatigue strength/ultimate strength becomes a smaller ratio.

figure 2Figure 2


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Hardness versus Strength

There is a very good relationship between hardness and strength for steel. If the hardness is known the tensile strength can be estimated, and the reverse is also true. This relationship is valid for tensile strength but not for yield strength. This relationship is true for most any kind of steel, whether it is as rolled, forged, heat treated or cold worked. A graph of this relationship is provided in SAE J413.

The relationship of hardness versus strength for most of the iterations through 141 is shown in Figure 1. Three different classes of steels are shown, through-hardened, induction-hardened case and carburized case. The through-hardened steels are primarily made up of as rolled, forged and cold worked low to medium carbon steels which may or may not have been quenched and tempered. With these steels there is a linear relationship between hardness (from 130 to 650 Brinell) and tensile strength, which is in good agreement with SAE J413. With the induction-hardened case steels there are only three data points. These three steels were SAE 1050M, SAE 1552 and SAE 1070. Two of the data points seem to follow the same curve as the through-hardened steels while one, the SAE 1552, is significantly lower in strength. In a previous blog article, “Strength and Fatigue Life versus Carbon Content at High Hardness” it was determined the reduced properties were likely caused by the large grain size present in these samples. With the carburized-case steels there is a tremendous variation in strength at the same hardness. At 600-750 Brinell there is a difference of 2.5:1 between the maximum and minimum strength of the test iterations. There are about 4 or 5 data points that fall within the through-hardened curve while the majority is much lower. It is typically assumed the carburized case has high strength because of the high hardness and the core is lower in strength because it is softer. However, the data indicates in many cases the carburized case is equal in strength to the softer core. At the very low end it may only be equal to a core with a hardness of about 250 Brinell.

What is the reason for this behavior of the carburized case? Again, from the previous article referenced above we know that both a large grain size and a high carbon content can decrease strength at a hardness of 60 HRC. Certainly, many of the carburized case samples have both of these conditions as some were through-carburized with very long cycle times. However, others were case hardened to produce a case/core composite at more typical cycle times. In future articles we will take a closer look at the carburized case samples to try to determine what other factors may be affecting the strength level, as well as what the relationship between hardness and fatigue looks like.

SMDI Blog 35 Figure 1Figure 1

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Effect of Intergranular Oxidation on Axial Fatigue Test Bar Performance

Two 100 pound heats of vacuum melted 8695 steel were made for iterations 40 and 41. This chemistry represents the case of carburized 8620 steel. The two heats were forged into bar stock from which axial test bars were machined. In order to produce intergranular oxidation (IGO), both sets of test bars were carburized. Iteration 40 was copper plated prior to carburizing to prevent carbon diffusion and any associated IGO. Both sets of bars were polished prior to testing. Figure 1 shows the IGO present at the surface in iteration 41.

SMDI Blog 34 Figure 1Figure 1

Table 1 shows the mechanical properties and hardness for both iterations, and Figures 2 and 3 show the stress-strain curves. The static strength of iteration 40 without IGO is about 50% greater than iteration 41 with IGO. The elongation or ductility is also greater. It would seem possible that this difference could be related to the presence of IGO, however there is also a difference in how the samples were processed.

Table 1

SMDI Blog 34 Table 1

SMDI Blog 34 Figure 2
Figure 2

SMDI Blog 34 Figure 3
Figure 3

Figure 4 shows a comparison of the fatigue curves for iterations 40 and 41. In the low cycle portion of the curve, iteration 40 has better fatigue life. This is typical for a sample with higher strength. However, in the high cycle portion of the curve, iteration 41 has the better fatigue life. If IGO had a negative effect on performance this is where it would occur. It can therefore be concluded IGO is not detrimental to the fatigue life of these samples.

SMDI Blog 34 Figure 4.jpgFigure 4


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Strength and Fatigue Life versus Carbon Content at High Hardness (60 HRC)

The strength, fatigue and hardness data for several iterations with a high hardness level, around 60 HRC are shown in Table 1. The steels in these iterations are both plain carbon and low alloy grades with carbon contents ranging from 0.50% to 0.95%. The heat treatments used to obtain this hardness level were quench and tempering, carburizing and induction hardening. All of the samples during this time period were finish ground and polished after heat treatment, with the exception of iteration 41 which was not ground to preserve the intergranular oxidation (IGO) present at the surface. All of the samples were through hardened in the gage length.

Table 1
Blog 33 Table 1

A graphical representation of the data is shown in Figure 1. The graph shows the yield strength and ultimate strength decrease as the steel carbon content increases. Per SAE J413 the expected tensile strength at 60HRC is 2469 MPa. This is in good agreement with the SAE 6150 and SAE 9254 quench and tempered steels at the left end of the curve, which are 2343 MPa and 2450 MPa respectively. However, as the carbon content increases to 0.95% at the right end of the curve the ultimate strength decreases to about 1000-1500 MPa. All of the data follows this trend with the exception of the SAE 1552 induction hardened steel (iteration 92) which has the lowest strength at 933 MPa. An examination of the microstructure revealed the probable cause. The typical grain diameter of iteration 92 is 76 microns which is significantly larger than the other iterations at approximately 13 microns. In addition to the steel carbon content affecting the strength at this high hardness level it appears the grain size can also have a significant effect. Iteration 92 is approximately an ASTM E112 grain size 4.5 while the other samples are around grain size 10. A grain size of 4.5 is not unusually large for an induction hardened component, however a grain size 10 is unusually small. While the carbon content appears to have a significant effect on strength it does not appear to affect the fatigue life. The fatigue strength for one million cycles was relatively constant for all of the samples at approximately 500 MPa.

Blog 33 Figure 1Figure 1

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Carburized Core Properties When Hardness is Controlled by Cooling Rate

In the previous article we examined the relationship between the core hardness of carburized steels to both strength and fatigue. In that study the hardness was controlled by the tempering temperature used during the quench and temper heat treatment. In actual practice the core hardness of carburized parts is a function of the steel hardenability, the cooling rate of the quenchant used, and the cross section size of the part. Hence, with a given steel and quenchant the hardness is controlled by the cooling rate.

In iterations 119-130 test bars were produced from 8620, 4320, 9310 and 20MnCr5 steel. These bars were intended to represent the core of carburized components at three different hardness levels. Rather than to control the hardness by quench and tempering the hardness was controlled by machining bars to various diameters and then oil quenching and tempering at 177 C. This more closely represents what occurs during actual carburizing.

Table 1 shows the fatigue strength, mechanical property and hardness data for iterations 119-130. Again, the fatigue strength is the stress level to achieve 1 million cycles.

Blog 32 - Table 1Table 1: Core Hardness Properties Iterations 119-130

Figure 1 shows the ultimate strength versus hardness for the four grades of steel. Shown are the actual data points as well as the upper and lower bounds. A nearly linear relationship is shown between hardness and strength. Also shown are the upper and lower bounds from the previous article where the relationship did not appear to be linear. There is overlap in the two data sets, however the most recent data appears to be in the lower portion of the first. Once again, the steel grade or alloy content does not appear to be significant. The high alloy 9310 steel and medium alloy 4320 steel do not appear to be any stronger than the low alloy 8620 and 20MnCr5 steels at any given hardness level.

Blog 32 - Fig 1Figure 1: Ultimate Strength versus Core Hardness, Iterations 119-130

Figure 2 shows the fatigue strength versus hardness. Again, the actual data points are shown along with the upper and lower bounds. The relationship between fatigue strength and hardness is linear and the slope appears to be similar to the strength versus hardness plot above. Also shown are the upper and lower bounds from the prior article. In both cases the relationship is linear, however in the previous data set the slope is more shallow and there appears to be more scatter or variation.

Blog 32 - Fig 2
Figure 2: Fatigue Strength at 1 Million Cycles versus Core Hardness, Iterations 119-130

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