Manufacturing the future

Yorkshire Business Insider, September 2003

The Boeing-backed Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has been heavily promoted as an exemplar of Yorkshire's high-tech economy, but what does it actually do? Tim Chapman reports

The high-tech world of advanced metals research made an unlikely appearance in the headlines in early 2001, when Yorkshire Forward and the University of Sheffield announced a 15 million collaborative venture with aerospace giant Boeing. The Aerospace Manufacturing Research Centre, as it was then called, was touted as the cornerstone of a 650 million industrial park forming a centre of excellence in metals research and high value industry.

The fact that Boeing was seen to be investing in the region became a point of pride and a centrepiece of further promotional efforts for Yorkshire Forward and the other investment agencies involved in the area. On occasion, the reality of the research centre got obscured by the excited headlines about Boeing bringing 7,000 jobs to the former coalfields of South Yorkshire.

Since then, it has been subtly renamed the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) to reflect its work in other sectors such as automotive and medical technology, and has quietly established itself as a thriving hub of materials research with a string of research contracts with major industrial leaders. Construction has now started on new purpose-built premises, shaped to resemble an aircraft's wing, on the Advanced Manufacturing Park at Waverley, Rotherham (see below).

The whole project was initiated by Adrian Allen, now director of business development at the AMRC. In his previous role as sales director at Sheffield specialist cutting tools group Technicut, he was eager to sell his company's services to Boeing, the world's largest commercial and military aerospace manufacturer. Boeing, like other prime players in the aerospace and automotive industries, has adopted the strategy of increasing competitiveness through a programme of rationalisation - redefining its core business as being a large systems integrator, leading the design and marketing of its multi-million dollar products and limiting its manufacturing activities to bolting together large monolithic parts developed and manufactured by a small number of first tier suppliers. As part of this reinvention, Boeing was looking to concentrate on a dozen centres of excellence which could research and evaluate new technologies.

"Boeing identified 12 key areas or disciplines in their business, things like avionics, electronics, air traffic control and advanced manufacturing," Allen says. "In those 12 areas they wanted to follow global trends by rationalising the best of what they've got and creating a centre of excellence, with the best people, best process and best plant and equipment."

Allen linked up with Professor Keith Ridgway of the University of Sheffield's top-rated department of engineering to devise a plan for a South Yorkshire Centre of Excellence in metals technology. Sealing the deal with Boeing took12 months work by the University of Sheffield, Yorkshire Forward and the DTI. The US group is investing directly in the AMRC and has 10-year commitment of involvement to invest in R&D in engineering science and manufacturing in Sheffield.

"We take a lot of pride that there's a lot of people competing to be one of those centres of excellence, and for the home town of stainless steel to be a centre of excellence is a marvellous achievement for the university and the region," says Allen.

The AMRC is currently housed in a unit on the Sheffield Airport Business Park, on the opposite side of Sheffield Parkway to the Waverley site. The move into the new purpose-built facility – scheduled for early February 2004 – can't come soon enough as the current premises are now full. Professor Ridgway, now the centre's research director, says that the expansion planned for four years came in just 18 months.

As well as its flagship deal with Boeing, the AMRC has won research contracts with a number of major manufacturers, including Sandvik Tooling, the Swedish high-speed tooling group; Messier-Dowty, the world leader in airplane landing gear systems and part of the Paris-based Snecma aerospace group; and Alcoa, the US-based aluminium production and engineering giant. Another six major clients are waiting to sign up.

"These are pretty big famous names that any big research university would give their right arm to have research contracts with," Allen says. "They see the sense in having a single source where they can plug in for all their hopes and aspirations for modern manufacturing techniques and methodologies."

The bulk of the AMRC's current home is taken up by a workshop housing a variety of specialised machining centres, several the size of small trucks. One recent purchase, the Cincinnatti H5-800XT, is designed for the high-speed machining of titanium. Titanium is one of the most demanding of metals to work with, but one that's increasingly in demand by the aerospace and automotive industries because of its unique combination of strength and extremely light weight.

High speed machining allows the production of thinner and more sophisticated structures, and can reduce the machining time of components. For instance, an aileron assembly which would usually take 36 hours to mill down from a solid piece of titanium can now be completed in less than nine hours. "I think we can cut titanium faster than just about anybody," Ridgway says. The centre's titanium capabilities will shortly be increased further with the arrival of another machining centre, a Starrag ZT1000 worth around 2 million.

Several of the machining centres include webcams so that industrial partners can watch work being carried out. This also allows the researchers to study the sound and vibration patterns of the machining process. Vibrations can severely limit the speed and efficiency of machining, and the AMRC is working a number of technologies to reduce the problems. The machining centres are controlled by PCs which control stability and identify the so-called "sweet spot" - the speed of rotation of the cutting bit at which vibrations are minimised. The drill heads themselves can also be designed to reduce vibrations, for example by engineering each cutting edge with a sine wave. Such damping technologies can greatly increase drill speed, tooling depth, and the lifetime of the tools.

The workshop also includes rapid prototyping technology, which can turn a computer-generated product design into a plastic or casting wax model within hours.

Adjoining the workshop is a virtual reality (VR) laboratory, where engineering concepts and designs can be tested in a quick and efficient virtual environment. VR is used as a validation tool, reducing the time to market and the cost of development of new product designs.

Much of the research here centres on transferring the imaging capabilities of VR into other areas such as machining and data analysis. For example, AMRC worked with a local company producing suspension arms for the heavy transport industry, combining computer imaging with stress analysis to identify and remove potential weak spots in the design.

The lab uses a new VR system that exploits two fields of polarised light to generate a three-dimensional image – a concept that's also used in the 3-D Imax projection system at the NMPFT in Bradford. The AMRC team used this VR system on AMP's stand at the Paris Air Show in June to provide a virtual fly-through of the park, and received many inquiries about the projection system itself.

The centre currently employs around 25 researchers, with each PhD researcher taking responsibility for a customer and an area of technology. The research being leveraged into the AMRC is worth some $25 million, Ridgway says. Several of the technologies developed at the centre are truly innovative and could potentially be licensed for commercial exploitation or developed into spin-out companies.

"We don't sell competitive advantage, we've got to sell a culture that provides repetitive advantage," Allen says. "This is about knowledge creation and that goes on to create wealth, and it's from wealth that jobs are created."

While the AMRC's primary clients are multinational corporations, its work will benefit local businesses in South Yorkshire's industrial heartland, in sectors from automotive components to medical devices. "There's a lot of firms out there, particularly SMEs, that cannot have the resources in house to have a full-time VR or milling specialist," Allen says. "When we have the capacity the plan is, over a period of 18 months to two years, to get out to all these people and communicate the resource we have here in South Yorkshire for all of them to take advantage of."

AMP ramps up
The Advanced Manufacturing Park is a joint venture between Yorkshire Forward and UK Coal, owners of the Waverley site on the boundary of Rotherham and Sheffield. Covering 100 acres of the total 760 acre site, AMP aims to attract 650 million of investment from private and public sources by 2007.

The first phase of development is focused on developing a cluster of research expertise, with AMRC as the anchor tenant. It will be joined by new headquarters for Castings Technology International (CTI), an established provider of R&D services and support to producers and users of metal castings around the world.

CTI is investing 6 million in the new purpose-built facilities. Around 50 new technician jobs will be created at the centre as CTI expands its R&D activities in advanced technologies and materials, for sectors including aerospace, motorsport and medical prosthetics. Construction is due to start soon, with occupation scheduled for September 2004. CTI is also retaining its existing facility on East Bank Road in Sheffield for its ongoing activities.

The National Metals Technology Centre (Namtec), a newly created centre of excellence backed by Yorkshire Forward and the DTI, is also to move to AMP from its temporary home at Swinden Technology Centre, Rotherham. Namtec focuses on forging links between industry, particularly SMEs, and research in metals technology. It is likely to take premises in a proposed building for smaller tenants and international companies wanting to test the waters at AMP before committing to a major manufacturing presence.

Yorkshire Forward is also in advanced discussions with TWI (The Welding Institute), a centre of excellence in the joining of engineering materials including metals, plastics, composites and ceramics, to move its research base onto AMP.

The park still has to secure its first industrial tenant, however. Steel giant Corus, whose engineering steels division is based in Rotherham, had been expected to create a research centre on AMP, but that has been postponed until the group resolves its current financial problems. "We would love to have Corus as part of the entire process but the timing is really up to Corus," says Les Pynn, business development manager for AMP. "We have a very aggressive marketing programme underway and we will deal with prospective inward investors on a first come first served basis. Corus will certainly be very welcome in terms of the total equation of what we're trying to do here."

After marketing AMP at the Paris Air Show, Pynn has identified around 50 North American companies who are interested in what the park has to offer. Discussions are also continuing with around 20 Japanese companies following a presentation in Tokyo. As well as the potential benefits of being part of a thriving industry cluster, AMP also has the attraction of being in the South Yorkshire Objective One area, offering inward investors the highest level of aid and support.

"We believe we have the capability to address reasonable requests by these inward investors – and the key word is reasonable because we want to make absolutely certain that when we do offer all the advantages of South Yorkshire that all these public funds are used very very wisely by those companies," says Pynn. "Those inward investors are going to be with us in South Yorkshire for the long term."

The wider development is being led by a steering group of well regarded business and technical figures, headed by former Boeing vice president Jerry Ennis.

"There is no other advanced manufacturing park that has the same elements that we have available, anywhere else in the world to my knowledge," says Pynn. "What we're convinced of is based on the history of the region and strength of the metals sector, we're putting forward a proposition that is not available anywhere else in the world. For that reason we're confident that our probability of success is very high."