In the swim

Rapid manufacturing technologies could join the industrial mainstream if a heavyweight consortium led by Loughborough University succeeds. Andrew Lee reports.

A £2.7m university/industry collaboration hopes to bring rapid manufacturing (RM) technologies into the industrial mainstream.

The partners in the project, called Atkins, have ambitious plans to apply emerging RM techniques in ways that it is claimed could ‘revolutionise’ component production in the automotive and aerospace sectors and bring major cost and environmental benefits.

Atkins is led by Loughborough University and backed by a heavyweight industrial consortium that includes Boeing, Bentley Motors, Virgin Atlantic and Alcon. The Technology Strategy Board is also supporting Atkins, which is based at Loughborough’s Wolfson School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.

At the heart of the project is the application of additive manufacturing processes to selective laser melting (SLM) of metallic components. SLM uses lasers to fuse powdered metal materials layer-by-layer to create complex objects. The system follows cross-sections produced from a 3D CAD model of the component, and the RM process is often likened to ‘printing’ a part.

These types of technologies are most commonly used in the field of rapid prototyping (RP) rather than as a widely-used manufacturing technique.

The Atkins team will carry out research that it hopes will push RM technology forward in several key areas, addressing deficiencies that could prevent it from taking its place in mainstream manufacturing.

The first relates to the design phase, where the Atkins partners believe current tools are heavily geared to the requirements of conventional manufacturing techniques rather than the flexibility offered by RM.

The Loughborough-led project will also attempt to create more advanced RM systems.

According to Atkins, existing systems suffer by comparison with conventional machine tools because they have evolved from a background of RP and were not designed for the manufacturing environment.

Another important area of focus will be on realigning supply and demand chains so that they can take advantage of the opportunities Atkins claims RM could bring.

Project leader Prof Richard Hague believes advances in SLM could sweep away many of the most undesirable characteristics of the conventional component supply chain, particularly material waste and the need to transport parts from production plant to end-user.

According to Hague, waste is endemic in the existing component design and production process, not least because of the widespread use of conventional manufacturing techniques such as machining, which he said resulted in the generation of large quantities of unused material.

‘Often machining operations can result in 90 to 95 per cent waste material, which then has to be recycled,’ said Hague.

The manufacturing processes that Atkins aims to develop would be far more closely geared to using only the material that is needed. Hague said the use of RM systems would also allow the creation of fully-optimised geometries that are up to 50 per cent lighter than conventionally manufactured components, resulting in much lower energy consumption when they enter service.

The fact that RM could produce components at the point of need rather than remotely would be another key benefit, according to Hague. The requirement for conventional manufacturing facilities such as high-speed machining usually means component production must be carried out at a dedicated facility that supplies many end-users.

Advanced RM would see designs transmitted digitally to the customer for production on-site.

‘The ability to create parts where and when they are needed rather than at a factory hundreds of miles away will also help reduce both costs and the environmental impact,’ he said.

The Atkins initiative will run until spring 2011. Hague claimed that although the initial focus of the project would be on automotive and aerospace, which he claimed could be ‘revolutionised’ by RM, the technologies and processes could eventually be applied to a wide range of other industries.