Manufacturing Technology Centre, Coventry.
This week marked the official launch of the Manufacturing Technology Centre’s Centre for Net Shape and Additive Manufacturing (NSAM) and Aerospace Research Centre. I went along to take a look inside what’s happening at the Coventry based hub and find out how it plans to inspire Great British manufacturing on a global scale.
Established in 2010, the MTC is the success of a partnership between major UK manufacturers and Birmingham, Nottingham and Loughborough Universities, and currently has more than 80 industrial members including Rolls Royce, Airbus, HP and GM. Set in the greenery of the West Midlands just a few miles off the M6 – made particularly idyllic with the welcome sun and almost suspicious lack of traffic – this impressive centre is a huge contemporary building that’s quite literally flying the flag for British manufacturing.
As you enter you are greeted with familiar success stories from the 3D printing universe including Rolls Royce evolution of the wide chord fan blade which shows a giant hollow titanium structure and the Trent XWB-97 development front bearing housing. These aren’t small examples of what we might be able to achieve with 3D printing, they are super-sized, tangible, heavy duty parts that show what leading manufacturers have already accomplished through collaboration with research centres like this. Of course there are plenty of smaller engineering feats on display including Renishaw’s ‘fingers of fate’ part that featured on the front cover April’s TCT Magazine. Smug mode.
Taking a tour around the MTC’s new National Centre for NSAM, it’s not simply a show and tell of “look how great we are” – it’s about being realistic and demonstrating the true possibilities of this technology. Significantly, the majority of the NSAM floor space is not dedicated to additive technologies but rather the often cloaked processes of powder management, post processing and validation that play a major role in getting additive manufactured parts to their finished and functional standard. There’s a key takeaway here and a common theme that’s echoed throughout the industry – to tackle the ideas stipulated in the mainstream media that 3D printing is just a click and go process.
The centre started out with an Arcam machine, which through extensive use on the shop floor, helped to shape more recent iterations of the system. The two primary technologies are EBM and laser melting with the EOS EOSINT M 280 and Renishaw AM250 taking their place on the production line but there’s also plenty of space dedicated to design, inspection, pilot production and simulation for part optimisation and performance analysis.
Rolls Royce evolution of the wide chord fan blade .
Everything is very open, the walls are glass panels so you can literally see everything that’s going on inside the centre and that’s done very deliberately.
Dr Ross Trepleton, Group Technology Manager, Component Technology at the MTC, commented: “One of the key aims of the centre is uncovering the dirty secrets of additive, showcasing the back things that people forget about but if you don’t get them right you’ll never have a fixed manufacturing process. We want to showcase and tell people the challenges you’ve got to overcome.”
There’s a fine line between realism and putting people off the technology full stop and that’s one of the things the centre is keen to address.
David Wimpenny, Chief Technologist, Component Technology at the MTC said: “We have to be careful about not frightening people off but equally we wouldn’t be getting any thanks from a UK company if they get into this technology and find that they’re in trouble. We have to help companies by flagging up the problem but also by helping to develop the solution.”
Ross added: “We’re not negative, we’re realists.”
Meandering through machines and yellow safety lines, something that immediately struck me was the number of young faces in the workforce. Forgive my preconceived ideas, but this isn’t your typical industrial workspace with guys that have been in this game for years. Of course, there’s the odd grey hair here and there but 90% of this workforce are young people that are coming through, free from bias about manufacturing limitations or design boundaries and doing some pretty amazing stuff.
MTC's soon-to-be-completed Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre.
“You get challenged everyday and we often make assumptions about what can and cant be done,” David explained. “It’s much easier to train somebody to design for the process when they don’t come with lots and lots of preconceptions about design.”
Ross added: “The general way of designing a part is starting with a solid lump of material and you machine it away - that’s how designers think and actually we’re designing from the bottom up. People who have no experience of no other manufacturing processes are better placed to do that.”
By forming strong partnerships with universities that are making huge strides in AM research, now is a perfect time for young people to get involved in the industry and drive these projects across industries, from aerospace all the way through to jewellery, to their true potential.
Ross commented: “You have to think, additive manufacturing is quite a new technology, there aren’t that many experts around it, they still have an opportunity to get involved now and become world experts.”
But it’s not just young people that are benefiting from the centre. Small and local UK businesses are able to get stuck in and find out how they can take advantage of additive and net shape processes. Anna Soubry MP, Minister for Small Business Industry and Enterprise was on hand to formally open the Aerospace Research Centre, a cutting-edge 8,000 sq. ft. hub for the development of new aerospace manufacturing systems to full industrial scale.
Anna Soubry MP formally opens MTC's Aerospace Research Centre.
Speaking with Soubry, she feels there is huge potential for small businesses here at the new centre: “That’s the whole point of this for these small businesses to be able to come in and use these huge facilities and that gives them a huge advantage because it very much for that development which they would otherwise struggle to do. It’s this mix of big and small.”
For the MTC, educating those businesses is imperative to ensuring that the technology is understood for its advantages as well as its current limitations. Now it’s all about finding out what we can achieve by exploiting design freedoms and new classes of exotic materials that can only be applied to additive manufacturing. With backing from the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK as part of a £2 billion joint government and industry package to ensure the UK retains its edge on the global manufacturing landscape, a state-of-the-art training facility in the works and partnerships with major industry figures, the MTC is well on its way to pushing the UK to become the world expert it has the people and potential to be.
Ross added: “I think we already are a world expert in additive manufacturing what we need to be careful is exploit it correctly. We don’t want to miss the boat. We don’t want to have all of the knowledge and not do anything with it so it’s all about the next stage of industrialisation.”