Printable sensors set to ensure faster and more reliable manufacturing processes

Faster and more reliable manufacturing processes, with less human intervention, should be possible thanks to a UK collaboration to develop printable sensors for monitoring machined metal parts.


The two-year Innovate UK-funded project, called Intelligent Tooling, will develop sensors and electronic components that can be embedded close to the cutting surface of the tooling inserts in machining systems, to monitor the manufacturing process in real-time.

The sensors will be designed to monitor a range of parameters during machining, such as temperature, force, acoustic emission and vibration, meaning any small changes can be spotted and dealt with immediately.

This should improve processing times and tool usage, according to Steven Bagshaw, business development at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), one of the partners in the project.

“This allows you to identify early stage deterioration of tool insert performance,” he said.

A lack of real-time monitoring in existing machining means variations in material or tooling properties, for example, are often only detected in the final product inspection.

“The metals that these tools are working on are very expensive, so you don’t want to be cutting them with a tool that is underperforming,” he said.

This often forces manufacturers to be overly conservative in the machining parameters they set, and in the life of their tools.

The project, which also includes BAE Systems and Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, is aiming to develop a prototype tooling insert printed with embedded sensing, designed to withstand the harsh conditions found within metal machining.

Conventional electronics will be integrated with the sensors in order to transfer the data they produce to control systems.

Printed sensors developed as part of the project could be used in high value machining in a range of industries, including defence, rail, space, automotive, marine and energy.

The flexible nature of printed sensors means they can be incorporated into curved structures or other bespoke designs, and at a low cost, said Bagshaw. “We will be using our own ink formulations, and a variety of printing techniques, including inkjet,” he said.

The project also includes synthetic diamond manufacturer Element Six, Sheffield-based Advanced Manufacturing, Tamworth-based Printed Electronics, the National Physical Laboratory and machine tool manufacturer DMG Mori.