By Dr Edward Hobson, Knowledge Transfer Manager: Design, KTN
Imagine as a kid, writing your wish list to Santa…in May. It’s quite long with many things you’d dearly love to get your hands on. But you reckon on needing some serious prioritisation to get a fraction of that. Now imagine that a friendly but inconspicuous kid sidles over, eyeballs your list and says, “I’ve already got all that. Do you want to come over and play?”
Of course you go. It’s an invitation you don’t get very often. And for those engaged in high value manufacturing, a new building on the outskirts of Rotherham is where that offer crystalises. It’s a state of the art manufacturing suite comprising the latest tooling and production processes to help manufacturers innovate new products and services.
The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) with Boeing is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, set up to bridge the gap between emerging innovation and industrial-scale manufacturing . “Businesses come in and sound a note of incredulity”, says Dr Andy Bell, Design Manager, “first, on hearing what assistance we offer and second, on seeing the scale of our facilities. It’s like having a whole new tool kit to play with.”
The facilities are impressive. One new production process can create 10,000 individually customised units as quickly as making 10,000 identical units through injection moulding. Another can fine machine ceramics to single microns’ accuracy, opening up a whole realm of potential applications where previously only metals could have been considered. A self-contained room hosts a machine for laser-melting titanium specifically for creating bespoke medical implants, such as a whole new jawbone. With such advanced tools it’s tempting to jump straight in and use them.
[Dr Andy Bell demonstrates the ultrasonic production of ceramic components]
The Design and Prototyping Group provides companies with the guidance to take new production opportunities and explore the extent of their technical performance across a variety of materials. “It’s about understanding the art of the possible”, says Craig Roberts, Head of Design. Cross-pollination of technology and methods between industrial sectors is one of the key areas in which the AMRC can assist manufacturers, helping to de-risk the process of exploring new processes and approaches.
The Design & Prototyping Group
was created in 2012 to address a severe shortage of exceptional engineering designers. The capabilities of the design team covers every aspect of product analysis, understanding stresses, liquid flow, air flow and, moreover, being able to use this data, for instance to create and manipulate 3D visualisations and models. The prototyping extends beyond the product, to model how manufacturing processes are best configured, from the layout within a production plant to understanding how the people working there are best able to handle and work the materials and tools. This goes well beyond mere product design to demonstrate how good design understands people’s skills and needs to create productive working environments.
It is clear that the ethos that permeates Craig’s team is about being responsive to each customer’s challenges. Andy Bell says: “We are continually improving our own research and design processes so we can genuinely offer businesses the best support. There is no one size fits all solution and we apply a variety of design tools to help solve industry’s problems.” Engineering design is relevant across the whole of the development process, so it is important to ask searching questions to identify the real problem at the outset, rather than just trying to solve a symptom further down the line. “It’s about a strategic role for design, taking a more holistic and creative approach to examine how business processes and systems can optimise the latest manufacturing techniques” Andy continued
One way to demonstrate what is possible, is through proving concepts and novel prototypes, such as the Group’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)
. It takes a modular construction process, borrowed from the automotive industry, and applies it to aerospace, producing a 3D printed fully functional flying craft in a fraction of the time and weight compared to traditional processes.
[A display of the AMRC’s unmanned aerial vehicle which was 3D printed entirely from ABS plastic]
One of their key challenges is overcoming legacy products. For instance, a replacement component can be easily created through additive processes, doing away with the need for the original, out-dated production line. That’s a huge benefit to a company but going forward, it means the new part replicates all the characteristics of the old one which was designed that way because of the limits of old production technology. With new additive manufacturing techniques it makes no sense to impose these limits and a whole new approach is required. Overcoming this inertia is a real challenge which can release massive new opportunities for manufacturers.
The range of companies working with the AMRC is a roll call of high value manufacturers, from Tata to Rolls Royce. Projects are delivered at cost since the AMRC is a not for profit organisation, but a faculty of the University of Sheffield. While the AMRC has created extensive relations with larger corporates, they are keen to assist SME’s develop genuinely novel concepts in prototyping.
Funding for these types of development is available through Innovate UK
, the UK’s innovation agency. The AMRC will partner businesses to establish collaborations for bids, providing the prototyping facilities, technical insight and design thinking to realise innovation in a way that, simply, is not possible for businesses working with limited supply chains and existing market constraints.
This cross-pollination of technology across industries requires an open, collaborative approach with partners who want to seize the new market opportunities it generates. Ultimately the centre will succeed on the basis of the collaborations that it establishes and it is keen to see these extend wider across different industries and sectors. With so many InnovateUK competitions across manufacturing sectors, engaging the AMRC to develop a successful cutting-edge proposal can happen right now: it needn’t wait until Christmas.