The number of very valuable products that Britain is really good at making is broad and deep. New technologies, harnessed into manufacturing processes, are the key. Will Stirling reviews some of them.
British manufacturing once meant making high volume goods trying to compete on price, product development that lacked ambition, and heavily unionised and inflexible workforces. Today, things are very different. Manufacturing, and the ecosystem that supports it, is now built around a focus on advanced technologies and high value products.
“World class” is a hackneyed phrase with no hard definition but the UK has some manufacturing expertise that can claim to be among the world’s best. One is photonics. The Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton is a world leading research centres for photonics research. This technology is both a UK-manufactured and exported product – consider laser machines, optical lenses and fibre optics – and, as centre leader Professor Sir David Payne says, a key enabling technology. “Photonics navigates airlines, it helps assemble aircraft, it cuts metal, it manufactures your smart phone. It is even found on the Moon, on the International Space Station and on Mars.” The centre has created 11 spin-out companies to date, the largest, SPI Lasers, at £23 million turnover, has 248 employees and is now owned by Trumpf. In 2015 ORC won a £10 million bid to become one of two EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hubs, proving the importance of lasers to the UK economy.
FLITES (Fibre-Laser Imaging of gas Turbine Exhaust Species) is a now completed pan-European project to develop specific laser solutions for monitoring the efficiency of jet engines. The technology monitors how a Rolls-Rolls engine is performing in real-time, so that its engineers are able to improve both the engine efficiency as it operates and the manufacturability of the engine. “The engineering challenge is huge because these have a near two-metre diameter and operate in very harsh physical conditions,” says Dr John Lincoln, industrial liaison manager at ORC. The specific technologies harnessed were firstly the development of new lasers at new wavelengths, and secondly using fibres to deliver light all the way around the engine’s output. “We had to make the lasers themselves and secondly get the light to where it was needed, in an extremely hostile environment, to probe that jet output in all three dimensions,” says Dr Lincoln.
As well as developing a process, with industry partners, to manufacture a continuous fibre – with a hole inside it – measuring 14 kilometres, research at the centre has created a new type of glass. It allows lasers to transmit into the infra-red spectrum but with hitherto unachievable levels of purity. It means ORC’s partners can manufacture these highly consistent lenses, opening new opportunities for industry, and has picked up a lot of interest from the chemical detection industry – in life sciences, the oil & gas industry, but also very important for anyone involved in infra-red imaging. “Without these lenses you cannot do the imaging and therefore you cannot do remote chemical detection economically,” says Lincoln.
The Brits have a strong reputation for additive manufacturing (AM) expertise, even though – as is often the case – the technology providers such as Stratasys (US), EOS (Germany) and Canon (Japan) are foreign companies. Some better known breakthroughs in AM to fabricate large structures include the world’s largest aeroengine component to be additively manufactured, a 1.5m diameter load bearing housing for the Rolls-Royce XWB-7 engine programme. But UK engineers are finding applications for AM right across industry, including pharmaceuticals.
The Centre for Additive Manufacturing at the University of Nottingham is running projects funded by pharma company GlaxoSmithKline to design an AM process for manufacturing respiratory devices and to print tablets. Pharma companies want understand what advantages AM has over traditional tablet making techniques, and the centre specialises in developing multi-material AM processes. “For pharma you can grade a drug through a tablet and tailor the release profile, for example, and you can have more than one drug inside,” says doctoral researcher Prof Ricky Wildman, director at Additive Scientific a spin-out from the centre. “Then there are other benefits around distributed manufacturing and personalised medicine.”
So AM is being used in the UK to realise the potential from personalised manufacturing, a Holy Grail in the next industrial revolution, to customise a drug without the normal costly changes to manufacturing process, such as retooling. “Modern medicine is providing analysis on a genotypical level at the moment, meaning you can start to individualise the diagnose in a far greater way than you’ve ben able to,” says Wildman. “To take advantage of this diagnosis you need a process to personalise the medicine. You could have the analysis in a hospital and within a few hours have that specific tablet ready for consumption.”
To date there have been no trials ‘in-man’ of AM or 3D-printed tablets with the exception of Aprecia Phamaceutical’s ZipDose, says Dr Wildman. Personalised AM drugs will move from the lab to the factory, the hospital, pharmacy and finally printed in homes. “Its conceivable that within five to 10 years 3D printers for drugs will appear within hospitals’ pharmacies.” A new Additive Manufacturing Strategy is being prepared by the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and partners and will feed into the government’s National Innovation Plan.
Metrology is an area where the UK has both strong R&D and an international technology provider – Renishaw. Better in-process metrology, where a component is measured and verified during the machining process, can affect a step change in productivity, which has become a national obsession as the UK lags behind our peers. At the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing in Rotherham (AMRC), head of core research Tom McLeay says a typical project from an industry partner would request halving the cycle time for a process and halving the amount of manual intervention in that process, referred to as “double productivity”. “For example, a part that takes 10-hours today also has an additional two hours manual intervention, we would have to turn that 12-hour process into 5-hours of machining time and 30-minutes of intervention that might currently rely on rare skills and an aging workforce,” says McLeay.
Working with Professor Andrew Longstaff at the University of Huddersfield, with support from the National Physical Laboratory and Renishaw, on-machine inspection techniques using new sensor types, such as ultrasonic thickness measurement of casings and shaft components, have been developed to reduce manual intervention. “On machine inspection with probes is limited by access, so ultrasonic waves is a new technique to avoid this,” McLeay says. But the improvements are also about machine tool calibration and verification, where these tasks are done autonomously in the process rather than taking the machine off-line.
Renishaw’s Sprint scanning probe, launched two years ago, is its on-machine measurement system. While hard numbers are under NDA agreements, “during independent evaluation and testing of generic applications we typically expect a minimum of 75% reduction compared to conventional probing measurement times and possibly more depending on application requirements,” says Paul Maxted, Director of Industrial Metrology Applications at Renishaw.
The High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres like the AMRC, MTC and the National Composites Centre are focused, among other things, on “lights out” processes where stoppages, typically to check and measure parts and to remove swarf or burrs that interfere with the cutting tool, are removed. Machining is also a key area of productivity improvement where the UK shines. For example, within the “Industry Challenge” project the AMRC assisted Boeing Portland in proving out new carbide cutting tool technologies, providing a potential 67% increase in metal removal rates.
The list of home-grown, high value UK manufacturing techniques is broad and growing but needs relentless investment for Britain to remain in the top seven manufacturing economies globally.
By Will Stirling
Published by Centaur Media in August 2016