Metrology takes centre stage at Silverstone Park engineering hub

When commercial director Roz Bird asked Silverstone Park’s engineering firms what further expertise they needed, the answer was unanimous: metrology

Home to around 75 engineering businesses, and less than an hour’s drive away for a staggering 4,000 precision engineering firms, Silverstone Park in Nottinghamshire, adjacent to the famous Formula One (F1) race track, is at the heart of one of the UK’s most concentrated clusters of engineering expertise.

While such a rich co-location of different skills inevitably leads to collaboration, the park’s commercial director, Roz Bird, is constantly on the look-out for ways to support the businesses there and help make them more competitive.

And when Bird asked the park’s engineering firms what kind of expertise and equipment they’d like to see some investment in, the response was unanimous: “metrology”.

Silverstone Metrology Facility
Inside the Silverstone Metrology Facility

“I was told that apart from the initial cost, the set-up, calibration and operation of the equipment required specialist skills, as did understanding the information it produced,” said Bird. Moreover, having an appropriate installation on site equipped with state-of-the-art systems would also be equally relevant to many other companies nearby, not least – as Bird added – because the wider skills base that does exist tends to be monopolised by the plethora of F1 teams in the area. Hence such a facility might help extend the park’s general networking activities beyond its own limits and also tackle a wider skills shortage by providing relevant training. Therefore, Bird was certain that such a capability was needed, as well as actively wanted.

The result opened in June 2016 – the Silverstone Metrology Facility, a 3,000ft2 space in the park’s Innovation Centre, comprising a laboratory area, plus associated meeting rooms. Equipment operated includes a Romer Absolute Arm; a Leica Absolute Tracker AT960; and an Optiv Performance multisensor measuring system. The total investment involved was some £1.4 million, of which £0.4 million came from MEPC in the form of direct outlay and foregone income from the space. The rest, however, came from the company selected by Bird to operate the facility: metrology specialist Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence – a company chosen, she insisted, not as a mere contractor but as a “partner” precisely because it “understood that the venture is not about selling kit”.

The essential details about the facility are confirmed and amplified by John Drover, sales manager with Hexagon. He is confident that the way the facility operates makes it “unique in the UK – there is nothing else like it”. He said that there are several different strands of activity. At one level it is a membership organisation for around a dozen companies – whether from the park or the surrounding area – and at another a provider of contract metrology services on an ad-hoc basis, which has so far worked with as many as 100 local manufacturing businesses. The key point, he said, is the absence of “hard sell” and the determination to provide companies with access to state-of-the-art metrology equipment and expertise on an as-needed basis.

Roz Bird
Roz Bird, commercial director of Silverstone Park

One of the first on-site companies to sign up to the facility was design consultancy Performance Projects. The five-strong operation carries out work in three distinct, if related, areas: motorsports, niche vehicles and veteran cars, with the latter often including a need to ‘reverse-engineer’ old parts to produce replacements by modern means.

Managing director Chis Horton said that the facility can support the latter type of work in two ways. The first involves the use of its scanning or CMM (coordinate measuring machine) capabilities to record the precise dimensional details of an existing component. The other is to record an existing physical example of a part to which the intended new part would be mated. Either way the variety of parts and shapes involved is extensive. “We’ve done blocks, heads, timing covers and water pumps,” he said.

Performance Projects may also send the facility both a physical part and a “coarse model” in digital form that it has constructed itself on the basis of manual measurements so that the metrology equipment can then be used to improve the fidelity of that model to the required degree of accuracy.

Hence the Silverstone Metrology Facility effectively provides a design verification service to Performance Products, whose own final output is the resulting 3D CAD model in any of the three ‘native formats’ it uses: SolidWorks, Siemens NX and Catia.

Interestingly, Horton added that one very valuable capability the facility provides relates less to the hardware it uses than the modernity of the software that runs on it. He said that the two parties have worked together to find ways to enable the facility to return to Performance Product very rapidly files that do not use the relatively cumbersome stl format normally employed in such instances but that are instead in the STEP or IGES formats more appropriate for communicating geometric data to 3D CAD systems.

For instance, Horton said, the time for verifying and returning models of cast parts in the STEP format, which might previously have been a “couple of days”, is now an equivalent number of hours.

Nevertheless, Horton added that the ultimate value of the Metrology Facility to Performance Products lies in its utility as a strategic business tool. He said that the capabilities it provides could be found elsewhere but only at a premium price from another specialist metrology centre or, perhaps, more pertinently, from companies for which metrology might be a sideline and hence his own company’s work peripheral. In contrast the Silverstone Metrology Facility is not just “more cost-effective and co-located” but also crucially providing services that are its “main function”. What that means in consequence, he added, is that when Performance Products’ customers ask if its metrology capabilities are state of the art “we can look them in the eyes
and say ‘yes’”.

Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence will be exhibiting on stand B63 at June’s Advanced Manufacturing Show at the NEC