At the U.K.’s new Advanced Manufacturing Research Center, engineers and innovators have at their disposal some of the world’s most advanced design and manufacturing assets for precision engineering.

by Richard Gardner

For well over a century the word “Sheffield” has been synonymous with high-quality steel products, ranging from cutlery to heavy engineering products for bridges, railways, and aircraft. Following many years of industrial decline as much traditional large-scale manufacturing departed in the direction of low-wage Asian economies, the region suffered accordingly.

Laying down composite sheets in a clean area at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center.

However, high-quality specialist engineering and manufacturing continued to remain competitive, especially for very demanding sectors such as aerospace and energy generation. This has led to the creation of R&D facilities alongside Sheffield University, within a fast expanding hi-tech business park dedicated to innovation in manufacturing processes, including composites, metallics, and hybrid components. This has just been boosted with the announcement of a new $60 million project to build an advanced “showcase” factory, Factory 2050.

Factory of the Future Here Now

Professor Keith Ridgway, Executive Dean at Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC), told Aerospace & Defense Technology, “Our ambition is for Factory 2050 to be the most advanced factory in the world. It is part of our longterm development in high value manufacturing in which we have an international lead.”

The factory project will offer the latest technologies in the field of advanced robotics, flexible automation, an unmanned workspace, and off-line programming in virtual environments. Initially around 50 researchers and engineers will work in the new 14,400 ft² facility, which will incorporate “the highest environmental standards.”

Just part of the extensive machining hall facilities.
Sam Turner, Head of the AMRC Process Technology Group, told Aerospace & Defense Technology that in the past a lack of investment had resulted in a gap in the manufacturing food chain between those with special skills carrying out the R&D and those engaged in manufacturing activity. Fundamental research leads to core technology advantages that can deliver new business. The technology should not be a barrier to manufacturing but a key to unlocking more efficient output.

According to Turner, there is a need for a healthy interaction between academia and industry. The manufacturing industry should re-invent itself so that it is managing a system rather than just making parts. Design should be seen as a means of manufacturing, and greater quality is needed right through the supply chain. Closer integration at all levels is vital, he added. Best practice is essential, of course, but industry must be agile so that it can modify its products and this means it must have “more headroom” in how it uses technology in manufacturing.

“We are attracting new talent into engineering,” said Ridgway. He explained that setting up the AMRC was regarded as key to establishing a hi-tech engineering R&D cluster that would encourage the repatriation of more high value manufacturing back to the U.K., where there is no shortage of young people looking for a more promising future.

Technology Benefits

The AMRC is a true partnership and funding comes from the university, the U.K. government, the E.U., and 77 participating companies. From the outset Boeing has been a leading partner and other aerospace companies include Airbus, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Safran, Spirit, and Goodrich.

Participating company partners, most of which are global in operation, all have a share in the technology benefits for they are involved in the overall goal of improving new means, methodologies, tools, and techniques that will advance materials and manufacturing technology within their own organizations.

As an indication of the scale of savings that can be made possible by such innovation, Ridgway said that in some cases manufacturing costs had been cut by a factor of five.

Both Boeing and Rolls-Royce have invested heavily in the AMRC site and its spreading campus. A huge futuristic Rolls-Royce single-crystal fan blade manufacturing plant is already on site and in production and is claimed to be the most efficient aerospace engine component manufacturing plant anywhere, with very advanced processes that are kept well away from the eyes of casual visitors.

A big attraction of being in partnership at the AMRC is the “win-win” situation for everyone. For the facility managers, partner companies supply free of charge their latest equipment and systems for use in the various specialized work areas. These represent the very latest examples of hi-tech machines and specialist equipment, so they are suitable for evaluating and testing new innovative processes and methodologies.