EU plans the appliance of science

Getting experts together to speculate about the future is becoming something of a trend. In Britain, the DTI assembled dozens of busy industrialists and academics to produce its ‘Foresight’ reports, outlining the likely trends in society and technology, in an attempt to set priorities for action over the coming decades.

The result, after almost two years of meetings and thousands of e-mails, was 13 huge reports building dozens of scenarios and detailing hundreds of areas for further study. Some at the DTI found the results alarming – just because of their sheer volume.

Now the EU is at it, with a project called Mantys, which means the same as Foresight – but in Greek. The scope, though, is limited to manufacturing technologies, and the objective is to create a network of expertise, rather than to produce a report.

With its EU funding of e2m (£1.25m), the project is coordinated by Cecimo, a Brussels-based trade body representing the European machine tool industry. Its aim is to keep the plethora of research projects undertaken at universities all over Europe in line with practical applications.

‘This is partly about trying to define the trends that will affect the manufacturing industry in the years to come,’ says Cecimo official Chris Decubber (pronounced like ‘tuba’). ‘And the other part is about identifying technologies going that way. We have to try to marry the two.’

The European Commission’s research directorate, which is putting up the funding, thinks this is money well spent. Promoting this networking activity will allow it to make quicker decisions in the future about where to allocate further funding for research, both geographically and in terms of sectors of activity. ‘It should help to cut down on duplication of work in different centres around Europe, as well as providing an indication of their relevance,’ said Decubber.

The bulk of participants so far are technical research organisations around the EU. From the UK, three are involved: Cranfield University, the Castings Development Centre, and Amtri, the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Research Institute.

The various national trade bodies of equipment manufacturers and importers are also involved, with the aim of getting companies more closely linked with research projects. But this will remain down to the companies themselves, many of which will think long and hard about how much they are prepared to divulge to rivals. ‘This contradiction is always present in this kind of project,’ says Decubber. ‘You take part, but how much are you prepared to share?’

Despite the usual cliches about establishing ‘roadmaps’ and assembling a ‘group of sages’, the subject areas under scrutiny in the Mantys exercise indicate the likely path that manufacturing technology is set to take.

Part of it is simply a continuation of current trends, such as reducing costs and cycle times, and boosting quality. But there are also new areas, such as precision engineering linked to emerging sectors like nanotechnology.

Meanwhile, the growing need of suppliers to handle large fluctuations in volume on a weekly or even daily basis is becoming a driver in the direction of greater flexibility and agility of machines to handle this without bottlenecks or excess capacity.

Sidebar: The future of manufacturing: some areas the Mantys project will address

Process monitoring and control

Aimed at creating machine tool condition-monitoring systems. In the past, this has been hampered by the high cost of technology, the false alarm problem, and an attitude that a decline in workpiece quality is a good enough signal of tool wear. Typical research areas: what parameters to measure (ie torque, vibration etc), where to position sensors, and how to establish alarm thresholds.

Environmental concerns

To flood or not to flood – with cooling lubricants, that is. Research is focussing on so-called ‘minimum quantity lubrication’ and reducing the high costs associated with ‘dry’ machining in terms of tool wear.

Precision engineering

An important area will be the fabrication of micro components using ultraprecision diamond machining, for example; surface textures just one micron deep, and single-point diamond machining with single crystal diamond tools. Typical research areas: highly rigid machine architectures, rapid production of optical finish steel, and the manufacture of parts with dimensions on the scale of microns.

Flexibility and agility

There is no escaping the business cycle, but technology is emerging which allows manufacturers to expand and contract capacity to meet demand, in the shape of modular, scaleable systems. Other factors driving this are product complexity and smaller batch sizes. We can expect to see more of this in the future.

Socio-economic taskforce

Mantys participants will also be chewing over the broader issues many engineers are worrying about. These include analysing business cycle trends across different EU countries for capital goods suppliers; the question of whether equipment productivity gains will eventually depress demand for equipment; how new technologies will affect existing jobs and capacity; education and the skills gap; and the image of engineering.

They have their work cut out.