Steel quenching from the austenite region is a widely used industrial process to increase strength and hardness through the martensitic transformation. It is well known, however, that it is very likely that macroscopic distortion occurs during the quenching process. This distortion is caused by the rapidly varying internal stress fields, which may change sign between tension and compression several times during quenching. If the maximum internal stress is greater than the yield stress at given processing temperature, plastic deformation will occur and, depending on its magnitude, macroscopic distortion may become apparent.
The complex interaction between thermal contraction and the expansion resulting from the martensitic transformation is behind the sign changes in the internal stress fields. Variations in the steel composition and cooling rate will result in a number of different paths, which the internal stresses will follow during processing. Depending on the route followed, the martensitic transformation may hinder the thermal stresses evolution to the point where the stress fields throughout the component may actually be reverted. A different path may support the thermal stresses evolution further increasing their magnitude. The cross-sectional area also affects the internal stresses magnitude, since smaller areas will have further trouble to accommodate stress, thus increasing the distortion. Additionally, the bainitic transformation occurring during relatively slow cooling rates may have an important effect in the final stress field state.
A finite-element (FE) model of steel quenching has been developed in the DEFORM 3D simulation environment. This model has taken into account the kinetics of both austenite-bainite and austenite-martensite transformations in a simplified leaf spring geometry. The results are discussed in terms of the optimal processing parameters obtained by the simulation against the limitations in current industrial practice.