Beyond the boundaries

A revolutionary way of designing manufacturing machinery crosses technological barriers. It is all thanks to a pioneering partnership of academics and manufacturers. But will industry take it up? David Fowler reports

Mechatronics is about to transform manufacturing machinery, and the UK is poised to lead the way – if industry uses the new technology.

`We are on the verge of a step change in the way machinery is designed,’ says Paul Wiese, management committee chairman of the high-speed manufacturing machinery Link programme.

Mechatronics combines the intelligence of electronic control with a mechanical system. It frees engineers from the constraints of mechanical drives, gearboxes and linkages. `Now we can design machines to suit the process for which they are intended, not to suit mechanical transmission systems,’ says Wiese.

He cites the valve gear on a steam locomotive: designs produced in the 1860s remained in use through the age of the steam locomotive. But the conventional system `doesn’t give you the valve events you want,’ says Wiese.

Using mechatronics the designer can start from the desired result and design a system to achieve it. Rather than reciprocating rods, a modern solution would use an electronically controlled linear electric motor to open and close the valves.

Similarly, mechanical gearboxes with a fixed gear ratio can be replaced with flexible electronic or hydraulic drives in which the gear ratio can be varied electronically.

The Link programme received £5m funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, £4.5m from the Department of Trade and Industry and £11m from industry funds.

Dr John Parnaby, a former president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, encouraged the DTI to supply funding in the 1980s when manufacturing was thought to be in decline. The programme winds down next year.

It involved 77 industrial and 20 academic partners, and 30 new machines have been designed. Achievements include increases in operating speed of 100%, reductions in changeover time of 50%, and reductions in downtime of 50%.

Projects include automatic edge trimming of complex embroidery; closed loop monitoring of ultrasonic cutting equipment; high-speed manufacture of advanced lightweight metallic materials; high-speed linear drives; high-speed torque transducers; the productivity of screen printing and microprocessor control of colour reproduction on high-speed web offset printing machinery; and the reliability of food packaging machinery.

Project members claim the 13 years of industry/academic collaborative research has given the UK a four-year lead in mechatronics – if industry is prepared to exploit it.

Consultant George Sweeney, told a recent Institution of Mechanical Engineers seminar: `If we’re not going to have this technology sold back to us by Japan in a few years time, we’d better improve on our uptake.’

Sweeney runs the Machinery Technology Centre with Wiese at the Amtri advanced machinery research centre in Macclesfield. He says: `The real strength of the Link programme is that it has created a community and broken down the elements of mistrust between industry and academia that previously existed.’

The programme allowed collaboration across technological boundaries and individual projects. `This is something we can do in the UK that they can’t do in other countries,’ says Sweeney.

Six establishments – Aston University, Bath University, Bath Fluid Power Centre, and the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Wolverhampton – are working together. They offer integrated modules of software and technology for the design of equipment in four areas: general transmissions, single axis electric drives, multi-axis electric drives, and single axis hydraulic/pneumatic drives.

Sweeney says the institutions could form a super-university or centre of excellence to integrate the technology and take it through further research in Europe. Other modules could be compiled from the programme results if needed, building, for example, on Sheffield’s work on single and multi-axis linear drives.

`Whether UK industry will exploit this is a different question,’ says Sweeney.

The effect of the Link programme has been to `spoon-feed’ the results to industry, says Wiese. While about 10% of Government funds were allocated to the project for technology transfer, implementation and exploitation, there has been little success in these areas.

The role of the Machinery Technology Centre is to push the message to a wider section of industry and put interested parties in touch with the academic centres of excellence. Inter-project meetings have encouraged communication between all the Link programme participants.

A Machinery Technology Centre World Wide Web site is being set up. Initiatives also include the Constraint Modelling Collaborative Group, set up by Bath University for fee-paying members to exploit its software on mechanism design.

Wiese, as chairman of the IMechE’s machine systems, computing and control professional group, is also linking up with the IEE equivalent, the machine systems engineering applications group. He has persuaded the IMechE to give the subject a higher priority.

`I’m trying to get the engineering profession to understand that mechatronics is here and that it requires a fundamental change in approach to engineering design,’ says Wiese. Because mechatronics cuts across the traditional provinces of mechanical and electrical engineering, it required a multidisciplinary approach.

The planned joint working group would study how the profession should train and educate engineers to work with mechatronics. The IMechE has endorsed Wiese’s views and a meeting with the IEE is planned.

Meanwhile, Wiese and Sweeney urge UK industry to take advantage of the technology while it can. `We need to look to Europe for further funding, so the technological lead will start to dissipate,’ says Sweeney.

The Machinery Technology Centre partners will next look at how the technology can be used to promote agile manufacturing – where a firm has to respond quickly to unexpected market demands.

Wiese concludes: `Our message to UK industry is: this technology is available. Talk to us so we can help you.’

Where the technology can be found

Individual packages of software and technology available in academic establishments able to support them:

Aston University: selection of rotary electric motors and actuators.Design of control systems. Selection of axis groupings for high speed machinery

Bath University: design and selection of mechanisms for machinery transmissions

Bath Fluid Power Centre: design of hydraulic systems

Birmingham and Wolverhampton Universities: selection of drives and controllers

Sheffield University: selection of linear electric motors and controllers

University of Wales,Swansea: improving the performance and operational consistency of screen printing presses. A national centre of excellence

Liverpool University: laser sensor and cutter technology for following edge profiles of materials during processing – initially designed for textile industry but applicable to any sheet material

Huddersfield University: compensation for thermal and mechanical distortions in machinery (increasingly important to retain accuracy as machines become faster, lighter and reconfigurable)

Software and technology modules with several universities collaborating: general design of transmissions

Loughborough and Aston Universities: design of control systems for high speed machinery

Bath University: software environment for machinery design

Birmingham and Wolverhampton Universities: drive and controller selection aids. Single axis electric drives

Aston University: design and selection of electrical motors, drives and controllers

Bath University: design and selection of mechanisms

Birmingham and Wolverhampton Universities: drives and controllers selection aids. Multi-axis electric drives: as single axis, plus selection of axis groupings for machinery. Single axis hydraulic/pneumatic drives

Bath Fluid Power Centre: design and selection of hydraulic and pneumatic systems

Bath University: design and selection of mechanisms

Birmingham/Wolverhampton: drive and controller selection aids