We are leading UK research in developing advanced resource-efficient processing techniques for a variety of metals – such as nickel, titanium and aluminium – to make a range of state-of-the-art components using revolutionary technology.
3D Printing of Advanced Engineering Components
More properly known as ‘additive manufacturing’ or ‘selective laser melting’, we are able to ‘print’ complex items, such as an engine component, in their finished state rather than machining them from the bulk. Using lasers to melt a metal powder, we print the component by adding layer upon layer of the powder. We are at the heart of the ‘third industrial revolution’ – using 3D printing techniques to make components out of metal. We are the only university in the UK to use a variety of metals in this way, especially the laser and powder based techniques.
Net Shape Manufacturing
This technology, used to manufacture large components from metal powder to final shape in just one step, is known as ‘net shape’. It works by filling a mould, designed through sophisticated computer modelling, with powder and then applying temperature and pressure so that the powder holds itself in the shape required – an engine casing, for example. As with other novel engineering technologies, net shape manufacturing is much more efficient than traditional methods, with buy-to-fly ratio (the weight ratio between the raw material used for a component and the weight of the component itself) slightly over 1, compared to about to 10 for material removal processes: 60 kg of powder will make 56 kg of engine casing. This method also requires minimal finishing. In traditional manufacturing, machining work can account for two-thirds of the price of a component.
Direct Laser Deposition
Traditionally, if, say, an expensive turbine engine blade breaks or becomes worn, it is discarded and replaced. But we are exploring the use of metal powders to ‘fill’ the worn or broken bits. Again, the benefits include cost-reduction and increasing the product life.
These new approaches to manufacturing are transformational:
- The lead-time, from design to production, is much shorter than using casting and forging. It can take just two days to make a geometrically-complex component.
- They are resource-efficient. Nickel, for example, is very expensive material. Manufacturing by machining, removing metal, results in a lot of waste.
- The buy-to-fly ratio is vastly reduced. For example, with traditional methods, 10 kg may be required to make a 2kg component, whereas with 3D-printing, just a little over 2kg will be required to make the same component.
- They create products to a higher specification and dimensional accuracy.
Additive manufacturing is one of several novel techniques we employ to take engineering into a new era – where industry is able to design for functionality rather than manufacturability – bringing new prosperity to the UK. Moreover, this approach minimises manufacturing’s carbon footprint through the three Rs – Reusing, Recycling and Remanufacturing (repairing) of existing products. This is an example of ‘high-value manufacturing’ (HVM), where Birmingham’s advanced technical know-how is used to develop products and manufacturing processes that can bring sustainable growth and prosperity.
- We are at the forefront of net-shape manufacturing technology – making large components from metal powder to final shape in one step. This is known as Net Shape HIPping (Hot Isostatic Pressing) and overcomes the waste in traditional manufacturing.
- We are pioneering the use of the technique of direct laser deposition to repair worn components, such as engine blades, using metal powder, or to build large structure by free-form laser deposition.
- We are founding partner of the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). The MTC represents one of the largest public sector investments in manufacturing for many years and is housed in a 12,000 square metre purpose built facility at Ansty Park, Coventry for advanced manufacturing. It is a partnership between some of the UK’s major global manufacturers and the universities of Birmingham, Nottingham and Loughborough.
The MTC founder members include internationally renowned companies such as: Aero Engine Controls, Airbus and Rolls Royce. There are now more than 50 members representing a broad range of industrial sectors.