It’s the latest buzz-phrase for the future of the UK industry, but what exactly is Advanced Manufacturing? The Engineer – in association with the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) – invited a panel of leading UK technologists to a roundtable debate at London’s Royal Society to find out.
The Panellists (clockwise from bottom left)
Editor, The Engineer
Dr Clive Hickman
Chief Executive,Tata Motors European Technical Centre
Manufacturing Advisor,Manufacturing Advisory Service
Prof Richard Hague
Loughborough University, Additive Manufacturing Research Group
Features Editor, The Engineer
General Manager, Renishaw UK and Ireland
Managing Director, Arrowsmith Engineering
Engineering Director, David Brown Gear Systems
The Engineer: What do we actually mean by advanced manufacturing? Does it refer to exotic new non-traditional techniques,
improvements to existing production methods or a mixture of the two?
John Ransford: Advanced manufacturing is so wide and varied. What may be advanced in one area may not be advanced in another. I think it’s companies climbing a ladder from where they are to a higher level using different techniques.
Ian Godden: I’ve got a different view. In the UK, at least, manufacturing had become denigrated as unacceptable, because everyone assumed that it’s all going to low-cost manufacturing in China and India. Therefore we’ve had to invent the term advanced manufacturing in order to justify that this is the bit that’s going to stay here because it’s ‘very advanced’. It doesn’t define anything; it makes that statement.
Marc Saunders: We mustn’t confuse manufacturing with production. Renishaw employs 2,200 people and only a third of them make things. A third of them design things and a third of them support the others. The importance of manufacturing enterprises to the UK isn’t just the business of screwing things together and cutting metal. Ian’s right to say that ‘advanced’ is the stuff that we can retain. But why is that? It’s because it’s in some way differentiated. It may be the product itself, it may be the way it’s made, or it could just be down to the proximity and responsiveness of the supply chains to the prime supplier.
Jason Aldridge: But it’s also the areas of new and evolving manufacturing. It’s the marketplace that leads use there. Nuclear and renewable energy are now coming in, and new materials to make aircraft and cars lighter: we’re having to make advancements in those areas.
John Ransford: We use the term ‘high value’. We don’t think we are going to make 10,000 right-angled pieces of metal with a couple of holes in them anymore; it’s got to be something more refined and it tends to be higher up the value chain. We’re seeing a lot of our engineering companies moving into some really intricate machining.
Marc Saunders: And therefore the skill set that is needed is not a bloke standing next to a machine; it is a manufacturing engineer that can understand how to hone a process to a level that’s automated, efficient and high quality. That’s the skill-set of the future.
Richard Hague: For me it’s moving away from commodity items that are probably best made in the lower-wage economies and moving towards high-value products. It’s not just a single technology. Engineering design is absolutely critical to this and we’ve always been heralded as a nation that is excellent at engineering design, but there’s a view that it doesn’t matter where we make the things. Of course, it absolutely matters, because if you don’t know how to make things, you will eventually forget how to design them.
Ian Godden: I think you have to be careful with that. High volume doesn’t mean commodity and commodity doesn’t mean low-value manufacturing. A Coca-Cola line fills 2,000 cans per minute and is very advanced, but it’s a high-volume commodity product. I see lots of high-volume, very advanced commodity manufacturing.
Clive Hickman: For me, there are two words that capture this territory: reducing variation, whether it’s in low or high volume. If I look at car plants, when I went out to India all of the bodies were being built by people with spot-welding guns and you can guarantee that someone working on the shopfloor is not going to be the same day to day. One of the first things I wanted was a fully automated body manufacturing facility, because without that I couldn’t get a consistent product. Once I had a consistent body, everything else fell into place.
Jason Aldridge: We do a lot of R&D work where variation isn’t so relevant because you’re making very small numbers.
Clive Hickman: That doesn’t matter, because I think that in low volume you can get high variety and still achieve low variation.
Richard Hague: Can I challenge your point? I work in an area that is basically 3D printing of components. But it’s not necessarily high volume. One of the advantages of this is the creation of economic low volume. Most people would define that as advanced manufacturing, but our repeatability is shockingly bad. Does that make us not advanced?
Clive Hickman: You’re at the point in the programme at the moment where your repeatability is bad. But as you carry on and do your development, I guarantee you in 10 years, you will improve the repeatability.
The Engineer: Whether we’re talking about advanced products, processes or a combination of the two, what are the key sectors that are driving advancement in all these areas?
Ian Godden: If you look at our world market share in certain areas, that must be a definition of us being good at something. We’re at three per cent in automotive, which is exactly our wealth in the world, and the reason it’s still here is that you don’t want to ship loads of goods around; it needed to be in Europe. A lot of Japanese companies invested here because of the tax and business environment. We’ve got three per cent of the demand in the world and we are good enough at doing it to justify the fact that it’s here. Aerospace is 17 per cent of the market share — we’re second only to the US, so we must be good at that. That’s engines, wings, some cockpit for the military. And our market share is growing.
Marc Saunders: Other obvious ones are medical devices; oil and gas; these are areas where we have significant clusters that are driving innovation.
Jason Aldridge: Renewables and nuclear, we may not be world forces in, but we’ll have to be.
Richard Hague: For renewables, it’s like car assembly, we have to make them where they’re going to be used; it’s much more efficient. That’s why we’ll get an industry in that area.
Jason Aldridge: But historically, that’s when you’re the most innovative, isn’t it? I think the British are very good when we are forced into that situation and certainly with the SMEs we’re now forced into a position where we’ve got to shake ourselves down and get it right. And that is happening.
John Ransford: SMEs are absolutely fantastic at taking new ideas on board and giving them a try. From that we have got some of the top Formula 1 teams, we have got a lot of development centres for the bigger car makers. We are really good at coming up with ideas and giving it a try.
Clive Hickman: We’re also very good at coming up with good ideas and giving them away.
The Engineer: So how do we hang on to our expertise?
Richard Hague: That’s a matter of culture, isn’t it? Ever since I’ve been an engineer, manufacturing and engineering have been dirty words. It’s only in the last couple of years that people have realised you actually have to make something to make any money in a country.
Jason Aldridge: But in the last four or five years there’s been an absolute transformation.
Ian Godden: I think that’s right, but there is an elephant in the room. There’s a reason that we have a 17 per cent market share in aerospace. Every time there’s a new aircraft model, the government puts huge amounts of risk money into it. Lord Mandelson put a billion pounds into the aerospace industry last year. For the A350, the government put 12 per cent of the money up. We know perfectly well that our share of the A350 will be 12 per cent. That’s the game. Now, risk money will go into civil nuclear. Although the government is saying ‘no subsidies’, the signalling they are giving will determine whether we have advanced manufacturing and engineering in civil nuclear, and the amount of tax subsidy we give to renewable energy will determine whether or not we have a sector there. We’ll fool ourselves as engineers if we think that we’re wonderful and so we can overcome the fact that’s the way the world competes.
Clive Hickman: And we need to look at the intervention that the government is giving now to the manufacturing centres being set up around the country, in Loughborough, Coventry, Strathclyde, Bristol and Sheffield. They’re getting a vast sum from the government to form the link between university-based research and the sharp end of volume production. It’s a massive opportunity for UK plc and if we don’t seize on that now, we’re in real danger of falling by the wayside. I think this is just as important as the money going into aerospace because it is spread over such a wide spectrum.
Marc Saunders: It is. I chair the technical board of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre [AMRC] in Sheffield. It is aerospace-dominated — the AMRC was founded by Boeing and Rolls-Royce has got on board in a big way, and is now largely driving it. The Advanced Forming Research Centre [AFRC], the Manufacturing Technology Centre [MTC] in Coventry and the composites centre at Bristol have come about because of Rolls-Royce’s lobbying power. Those centres are strong in getting technologies out of the conceptual stage and towards a clear demonstrable stage on representative equipment. There’s still a gap where it gets dropped into real factories, and that’s where our key primes need to develop their ability.
Jason Aldridge: You’ve got to pull the supply chain along with the primes. There’s no point having technology centres with all the primes putting money in and getting massively advanced and then leaving the supply chain behind.
Ian Godden: That’s the one criticism of it, that the SMEs aren’t engaged enough with it yet.
Jason Aldridge: And do you know why? We’ve looked at joining the one in Coventry and it’s very expensive. You almost have to become a big company to get involved and we have to watch that. We can’t have this gap between top-drawer primes and third-division SMEs scuffling around down there.
Richard Hague: But the top-drawer primes have to say that using these new techniques is okay, so if they don’t get involved it’s going to be difficult at the lower levels.
Andrew Bromley: This is all fantastic but we haven’t got the skilled engineers that are going to pick up this technology and make it work for us. The investment in apprentices and graduate engineers stopped about 10 years ago.
Ian Godden: If the government cuts defence by 20 per cent we’ll have a surplus of engineers looking for jobs. That would cut 20,000 engineers out of the UK economy.
Marc Saunders: I will have a few of them!
The Engineer: What kind of production techniques and technologies are being developed?
Marc Saunders: There are four main technology strands at the AMRC. There’s a big focus on machining and cutting metal, and cutting aerospace alloys in a much more productive way. They’re also looking at combinations of additive processes and machining to produce composite components that are lighter, stronger and can replace metal. There’s an assembly process where they’re looking at how to put engines and airframe components together. There’s innovative materials processing, with a lot of additive processes and a structural testing looking at the performance of the components made using these techniques. It is not an academic research lab that’s hived away; the kit is very representative of the equipment you would expect to see in aerospace companies of the future.
Clive Hickman: The MTC in Coventry, again, is aerospace-led. It is looking at high-integrity fabrication, laser-welding, net-shape manufacturing, isostatic pressing, direct laser fabrication and advanced tooling. There’s also a stream looking at reconfigurable tools to do different types of jobs; they’re looking at intelligent automation, again focusing on reducing variation and they’re looking at how you can get high variety and low volumes.
The Engineer: What do we have to do to get this expertise from the R&D sector into a manufacturing area?
Richard Hague: Give me more money!
John Ransford: And how do we keep it in this country?
Marc Saunders: Make sure that link is maintained from the universities through the whole supply chain and not just to the primes.
Clive Hickman: Get that supply chain together through the three links and all of a sudden you’ve got something that’s unique.
Richard Hague: The funding of these advanced centres is very important. If you look at research as a pipeline, if you stop funding the low-technology-readiness stuff, eventually you’ll have nothing to take out to industry. Funding of good engineering and manufacturing is vital, and I’ll give the EPSRC credit, it insists on these new centres being user-led. Even though it’s low-technology-readiness-level activity, it has to have an end-goal of use.
Clive Hickman: Industry is prepared to help to do that. If I could get an end-of-line test from four hours to 10 minutes, that’s worth a lot of money and I would be prepared to put some money in to research. Then I wouldn’t want to make that equipment, so there’s an opportunity for SMEs to pick that up and make it into a tool based on the research that’s funded by someone else.
Richard Hague: The EPSRC will only fund low-technology-readiness-level stuff, but the centres have to have a portfolio spanning up the technology readiness levels. It’s effectively only a quarter of the funding; they also have to engage with industry. But the reality of it is, you have to have government funding. Research is research and some of it will work and some of it won’t. There was this ridiculous quote from the government: 90 per cent of research is useless. Of course it is! A lot of research doesn’t work, that’s why it’s research!
The Engineer: So are there areas we can really push forward?
Clive Hickman: There’s a big opportunity for the auto industry, particularly when you start to look at how you manage big batteries. We’ve got good batteries starting to be manufactured, but they’re giving us a vehicle range of about 150km on one charge and we really need to get to 300km, and we need the battery to be half the price. Battery manufacture is very much advanced manufacturing, there’s very little interaction with individuals to make the cells themselves, but building the cells into batteries is labour intensive. How can we make that an automated process that takes the labour cost out and gets better quality?
Richard Hague: Britain also has a strong lead in additive manufacturing. Basically we’re talking about 3D printing, where you start with a CAD model, cut it into slices and print those slices on top of each other. It’s fairly well established with polymers and it’s getting more established with metallics, but there’s a fair way still to go, especially on repeatability. The main benefit is the design freedom.
Marc Saunders: It frees you from restrictions. You don’t have to make parts you machine and bolt together. You can reduce the part count and connect functional bits in different ways.
Richard Hague: You have part consolidation with topological optimisation; you can define the outside boundaries, define the load it has to carry and effectively grow the part rather than having the constraints of getting a machine tool in there. We’re starting to take it one stage further by embedding some functionality, printing in condition monitoring. We’re leading on a research level in the UK but certainly not on an exploitation level.
Andrew Bromley: How do the properties of additive components compare with more conventional machined parts?
Marc Saunders: We use them for dental implants and it’s strong enough to withstand bite forces, which are pretty large. Those are structural, every one’s unique and we can make lots of them; it’s high-volume manufacturing.
Richard Hague: Small and complex parts are perfect. In-ear hearing aids are made like this. For metals, it’s similar to wrought characteristics, so really very good. For small complex parts, especially topologically optimised lightweight products, it is exceptionally cost-effective.
Marc Saunders: And it can be combined with subtractive processes. There’s nothing to stop you machining critical features to get the tolerances that the additive process can’t quite hold. Or vice-versa, you can add lumps onto the cylinder of an engine case. It is an exciting area for a range of fields.