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.
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.”
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.
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.
In turn, this provides the suppliers with invaluable high-quality feedback that helps them improve the product to make it even more flexible and efficient and also serves as a highly visible demonstration asset to attract new customers and sales.
The AMRC was originally envisaged as an R&D center-of-excellence for hi-tech machining technology, but with the increasing use of composite materials, hybrid metallic/ composites, and now, 3-D printed components, as well as advanced metallics, the scope has been widened to cover all high-end manufacturing materials and processes. Examples include casting and machining titanium and aluminum and all methods of fabricating composite structures and components. Sources claim this to be at least six years ahead of any other similar facility. Europe’s largest electron beam welding facilities are also included on site.
The Composites Center in the AMRC has facilities for autoclave and out-of-autoclave composites manufacture. Computer controlled automatic fiber placement of layered materials represents the latest technology, but Sheffield has a 200-year old local legacy of weaving skills and this has been exploited to incorporate traditional interwoven material patterns and techniques that can be tailored very precisely using 3-D weaving machines for today’s hi-tech requirements, especially in the aerospace sector.
Using different woven patterns in the material and different thicknesses can give added rigidity or flexibility and added density for strength where it is needed, and this includes using mixed materials combining metallics with the carbon fiber. An aluminum matrix composite material has been developed and tested for automotive applications. There is almost no limit to the permutations possible in preparing and making hybrid or all-composite structures and components and the research, testing, and evaluating at AMRC extends into next generation wing spar developments and highly complex molding techniques.
Other research activities include filament winding for composite tubes and microwave curing processes. An associated aspect of all R&D work involves factoring in the need to reduce energy consumption at all stages in the manufacturing process. In some cases a redesign of processes and methods has shown a reduction of up to 80% is possible.
In the AMRC Assembly Center the latest laser scanners and robotic systems are capable of working to tolerances of 15 micron, with huge reductions in operational timescales. One program successfully reduced a procedure that previously took one and a half days to just six minutes.
Creating a safe as well as hi-tech manufacturing and assembly environment is a key feature where operating boundaries are being pushed further out all the time. The use of advanced virtual reality and simulation tools are used for training as well as in other stages in the design, evaluation, and manufacturing stages of a project.
As a part of a feasibility study with a partner, a kinematic simulation of a proposed machine for 787 manifold assembly was completed to allow the center to validate the proposed design and easily communicate the scope of the innovation to the customer. During the visit to the AMRC, this reporter was able to experience the latest 3-D virtual reality capabilities, using a visor and hand controller to allow virtual components to be removed and relocated from a large aerospace engine that was complete in every detail. It was possible to accurately manipulate the virtual hand movements quite naturally after a few minutes and to become completely immersed in the task. In reality the engine existed only in a virtual environment within an empty white-walled chamber.
Castings Technology International is wholly owned by AMRC and is a comprehensive casting research facility, with a titanium casting capability as large as any in the world. Some 75 partners are involved and the facilities on site include casting design, pattern-making, cure making, molding, preheating and assembly, melting and pouring, inspection, machining, and finishing. There is a 1000-kg titanium melting capability and high strength steel castings can be manufactured in volume.
All aspects of inspection and validation are covered and the production technologies are very wide ranging, from titanium casting to additive layered pattern manufacturing, with bespoke patterns grown from a laser using light-sensitive resins. There is a unique capability in-house at CTI for making land-based turbines and this could be expanded into aerospace structural manufacturing.
In the Design and Prototyping Center new designs for manufacturing are studied in close cooperation with many SMEs who are currently involved in some 120 active projects. The center is seen as a highly effective facility to educate personnel from smaller engineering companies who would not be able to invest in such advanced design and test tools and systems on their own.
In the Structural Test Center there are the very latest facilities for component testing and validation including 8-axis loading system tools. There is also a microscopy laboratory for micro structural evaluation where material changes require very precise and accurate measurements with screening to determine the chemical composition within the material. In another clean-room area within the AMRC, extremely accurate measuring is undertaken with the aid of 3-axis touch-sensitive probes that record surface touch points and can be used to construct planes, surfaces or complex curves that are accurate to 5 micron.
An indication of the strategic vision at the AMRC is the establishment of a new Training Center where this past February 250 young apprentices were admitted to join others already learning basic engineering workshop skills, leading through a phased curriculum to more advanced training using the most modern CAD/CAM digital design and manufacturing tools and equipment, and classroom training aids, including virtual reality welding stations.
From these educational building blocks the apprentice students can progress on to more specialist skills and academic qualifications, while having access to advanced equipment and systems that will equip them for a forward-thinking future career in engineering. These apprentices are sponsored by companies that will directly benefit from the high quality and motivation of these young people.
The start they are being given at the AMRC campus will ensure that they build their personal skills and shared work experience on the basis of a sound “future-proofed” framework appropriate for the needs of the 21st Century, and not restricted by legacy practices and methods.