A research project co-funded by Innovate UK has led to Britain becoming a world leader in developing ‘game-changing’ hybrid manufacturing technology.
This new technology combines the flexibility of additive manufacturing (better known as 3D printing) with the precision of high speed computer controlled machining and the quality assurance of in-process inspection.
Hybrid manufacturing offers significant benefits over additive manufacturing, machining or inspection on their own. The process can be scaled up or down to produce parts in a wide range of sizes, productivity can be up to 100 times higher, and accuracy and surface finish are on a par with existing precision manufacturing methods.
It also has lower capital investment costs than other metal additive manufacturing processes, and can be retrofitted to existing machine tools – bringing it within the reach of a much wider range of companies.
Between 2008 and 2012, the £1m Reclaim project (which received £537k of grant funding from Innovate UK) brought together eight partners from business and academia to reinvent remanufacturing.
The project developed a hybrid manufacturing technology based on a multi-purpose machine. It brings together the separate elements of remanufacturing high value metal parts – additive manufacturing, machining and inspection – into one seamless, fully automated process.
A new spin-out company, Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies Ltd (HMT) was formed to commercialise this new technology in 2012.
“Without the support of Innovate UK this project would never have got off the ground,” said David Wimpenny, Chief Technologist at the MTC.
The machine switches smoothly from one part of the process to the next, so laser cladding (where a laser melts metal wire or powder to deposit metal onto a component) can be immediately followed by precision machining and inspection.
A critical breakthrough in making this system possible was developing the laser cladding head, with its innovative ‘docking system’. This couples the laser, an inert gas supply and a metal powder feed to the cladding head when required – enabling it to be selected in the same way as a cutting tool or inspection head.
Building on its position as a world leader in the field, HMT is developing the next generation of hybrid manufacturing systems – the AMBIT™ multi-tasking system. It’s working with Delcam and MTC to explore commercial applications for the system – which extend far beyond just remanufacturing or repair.
“Hybrid manufacturing can be used to to manufacture complex parts, through adding adding layers of materials, forming an entire component or to add specific features to an existing part,” said Jason Jones, CEO of HMT.
“As well as offering turn-key solutions based on completely new machine tools, HMT also offers the option to retrofit systems onto existing machine tools, bringing it within the reach of smaller companies,” he added.
Despite the leading role of UK companies in developing the core technology, international collaboration will also be critical for success on a global scale.
Delcam, MTC and HMT have teamed up with German specialist machine tool company Hamuel Maschinenbau, to develop a machine to manufacture or repair industrial gas turbine parts.
It was launched in September 2013 to much acclaim at EMO, Europe’s largest machine tool show, and was awarded the prestigious prize for ‘Best Multifunction machine’ at the show.
“We’re currently developing a system to repair industrial turbine blades for power generation. At the end of trials the machine will be shipped to Hamuel for final testing and production,” David commented.
The idea of hybrid manufacturing technology has rapidly gained ground in the machine tool sector.
No less than six companies around the world claim to be offering (or developing) hybrid manufacturing solutions and there are rumours of others intending to launch systems this autumn.
“It’s an increasingly competitive market so we’ll need to keep working on additional innovations and refinements to stay ahead of the pack,” David commented.
However, despite the competition, the IP developed, including several patent applications, puts HMT and the UK in a leading position in this new and exciting area.
“Funding and support from Innovate UK played a critical role in developing a workable methodology for hybrid manufacturing. It will also ensure UK companies are well placed to take advantage of opportunities in a field that will increase exponentially in size as industry wakes up to its potential,” Jason concluded.
The RECLAIM project, completed in 2012, developed the world’s first commercial hybrid manufacturing system combining three key technologies. It involved eight partners:
Two of the original partners, Delcam and the MTC, are still working with HMT to refine and adapt the process.
The long-term goal of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult is to stimulate growth in the manufacturing sector and more than double the sector’s contribution to UK GDP. It does this by helping businesses and research institutions accelerate new concepts to commercial reality. It will enable the UK to address market needs in key areas, making the country more competitive on the global stage.
The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – supported by Innovate UK. It proves innovative manufacturing processes and technologies in partnership with industry, academia and other institutions. It was founded by the Universities of Birmingham, Nottinghamand Loughborough and TWI Ltd to bridge the gap between research and full scale production. It provides an opportunity for manufacturers to develop and demonstrate innovative processes and technologies on an industrial scale in a low risk environment. Its members include global manufacturing companies from across industry.
Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies was formed in late 2012 to commercialise the world’s first hybrid, multi-technology system for remanufacturing high-value metal parts (like machine tools) – originally developed by the RECLAIM research project.