Skimming the surface

Surface engineering is not getting enough recognition. David Fowler reports Surface engineering and metal finishing techniques could be crucial to meeting many of the R&D priorities identified by the 15 Technology Foresight panels. But the panel reports make few direct mentions of the technologies, which could result in the sector being starved of research funds, […]

Surface engineering is not getting enough recognition.

David Fowler reports

Surface engineering and metal finishing techniques could be crucial to meeting many of the R&D priorities identified by the 15 Technology Foresight panels. But the panel reports make few direct mentions of the technologies, which could result in the sector being starved of research funds, warns a survey by the Confederation of Finishing Industries.

The CFI report* was produced in line with one of the Foresight recommendations of creating `close working links with professional bodies, learned societies and trade associations’.

Surface engineering includes techniques ranging from traditional electroplating to high-tech methods such as ion deposition or plasma assisted vapour deposition. Coating a low cost substrate with a more exotic surface allows a component to combine the desirable properties of the coating (high temperature resistance or wear resistance) and the substrate (low cost, light weight, structural strength). Techniques such as ion deposition do not affect the dimensions of the base component.

Professor Allan Matthews, director of the Research Centre in Surface Engineering at Hull University, says in the report that surface engineering and finishing are intrinsic to achieving many of the objectives identified by the Foresight panels: advances in corrosion resistance, liquid crystal displays, optical materials, and low cost aluminium composites `will rely entirely on surface engineering technologies’.

`There is a danger that those allocating funds for research will just see a proliferation of coating projects and start to restrict funding on some arbitrary basis, rather than seeing the all-encompassing nature of surface engineeering,’ he says.

David Harvey, TWI surface engineering technical specialist, produces a summary in the report of the role of surface engineering in each Foresight sector:

* Chemicals: the panel `seems to have missed one of the major problems’: corrosion, estimated to cost European industry Ecu270bn or 3% of the GDP of the European Union each year

* Transport: increasing demand for lightweight vehicles will put pressure on aluminium and magnesium castings manufacturers to extend the performance of their die casting tools (the number of units produced per tool depends on maintaining the surface). Pressure to improve castings quality is also a surfacing issue. Rapid prototyping of tooling through spray forming is under-exploited in the UK, except in aerospace

* IT and electronics: the UK has been slow to adopt techniques such as thermally sprayed dielectric substrates

* Materials: cuts in R&D in the power generation sector and by petrochemical companies are limiting growth of the market for new thermal spraying technology

* Agriculture, natural resources and environment: the UK has been slow to invest in R&D to develop optimum compositions and processes for high temperature corrosion coatings for waste incinerators and coal gasification plants.

The Metal Finishing Association is holding an open meeting at its Birmingham headquarters on 25 February to consider the report and seeks views from industry.

* Foresight for Finishing from the CFI, 0121 622 7387.