Designs on a faster finish

TCT 2007 brings together the leaders in rapid manufacturing and development for a two-day festival of insight and inspiration. Mark Venables reports

The pressure to get products to market quickly has never been greater. Fail to do so and consumers may have moved on or competitors muscled in and stolen the show.

This imperative is why rapid product development (RPD) and rapid manufacturing (RM) are among the hottest topics in the global engineering and technology sectors, and they are the focus of TCT 2007 in Coventry.

The exhibition and conference, which is unique in the UK, will bring 120 suppliers and leading technical experts together at the city’s Ricoh Arena on 26 and 27 September.

The TCT exhibition will give visitors the chance to rub shoulders with the biggest hitters in the business from the worlds of design and development hardware, software and services.

Just a few of the names exhibiting is enough to give a flavour of the calibre of what is on offer. The list includes Adobe Systems, Delcam, Solidworks, Autodesk, Stratasys, Sescoi UK, GTMA, Huntsman Advanced Materials and Z Corporation.

As well as the exhibitors, delegates can take part in two free seminar sessions, one offering SME visitors an introduction to the benefits of rapid technologies, the second exploring the theme of ‘Manufacturing Parts Using CAM.’

Alongside the exhibition is Europe’s largest RM conference, and it is here that visitors will be able to see and hear at first hand how the technology on show is changing the global product development landscape.

The conference, boasting an impressive range of presentations and papers covering all aspects of RM across a broad spectrum of industry sectors, will focus on specific applications to demonstrate how the technology can and is being used as a production technique.

For the first time, TCT will also stage a pre-conference tutorial (25 September) on rapid manufacturing in the digital age, designed to give visitors an overview of the key themes and help them get the most out of their two days in Coventry.

Joe Ferry, head of design at Virgin Atlantic, will deliver the keynote address on the opening day of the conference itself, and will focus on the importance of today’s design engineers embracing technologies such as RM.

Responsible for the overall development and implementation of Virgin Atlantic’s design strategy, Ferry is renowned within the aerospace industry as a leader in innovation. His insight and experience should provide delegates to the conference with plenty of material on which they can later draw.

Ferry has considerable experience of the unique design challenges of the passenger aircraft sector. One of the first projects he was involved with was Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to create seating for its economy and premium economy sections that feels more like easy chairs than traditional aircraft seats. Virgin has spent £12m on the project so far, with the new seats set to appear in its planes over the next year or so.

The company started by re-examining the historical constraints on aircraft seating. The first was weight. One reason traditional seats feel so spartan is the demand for them to be light — and with fuel costs at a record high, all airlines must keep their weight down as much as possible. So the team figured out how to cut the number of components in economy seats by 20 per cent. That allowed it to add new features, such as adjustable lumbar support, while keeping overall weight the same.

‘We’re designing a chair that has to withstand a 16g crash test,’ explained Ferry. ‘But previously it’s been left to engineers to create the structure, and then designers stitched over the top of it.’

Teaming designers with engineers produced creative solutions to old problems, like shifting a support bar so that it could hold the same weight load without sticking into passengers.

It also yielded a new manufacturing strategy. Most airline seats are built the way sofas are — a basic skeleton covered with upholstery. Virgin designers thought that approach wasted space and made upkeep difficult. So the new seats include replaceable modules so that cleaning crews can quickly swap damaged pieces during a plane’s turnaround time.

‘Our maintenance people have a much easier time looking after the seats, and that ultimately means the passengers get a more comfortable ride,’ added Ferry.

Hundreds of iterations — computer renderings, scale models, full-size prototypes — were run in search of a single seat that would fit an infinite range of bodies. ‘One person’s head could be two inches higher than the next person’s,’ said Ferry. ‘Yet when standing, they’re the same height.’ Designers responded with a moveable headrest and adjustable seat back —each of which created new problems, requiring still more modelling.

What they have produced looks like a traditional airline seat, but it feels noticeably better and, according to Virgin Atlantic, has received positive feedback in tests.

The conference will also play host to other leading names in the aerospace sector. Dan Johns, Airbus UK technology business manager, will present The Airbus Additive Layer Manufacturing Vision, a paper focusing on how the aerospace giant has built on the rapid, successful take-up of Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) technologies within the company.

The presentation will also aim to demonstrate the challenges Airbus faces in its efforts to introduce step-change technology to the broader aerospace sector, and how these can be overcome.

Of course, the event is about far more than the aerospace industry.

For example, from the medical devices sector, Andy Christensen, chief executive of Medical Modelling, will present Rapid Manufacturing with Titanium for Medical Applications.

This paper will explore how the latest developments in direct metal rapid manufacturing methods are able to meet the needs of the dental and medical fields.

These latter are the sectors that many believe will be the first in the world to truly embrace RM for mass customisation purposes.