Boeing for broke

Posted on 6 Apr 2010 by The Manufacturer

With the UK’s aerospace industry flying high in a global downturn, Edward Machin meets Keith Ridgway OBE of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing to talk Future Factories, intellectual property and success in the civil nuclear sector.

The brainchild of Keith Ridgway, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, and local businessman Adrian Allen, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre with Boeing (AMRC) was established in 1999 to provide an integrated research facility and international benchmarking centre for the UK aerospace industry.

Housed in the 4654m2 Rolls-Royce Factory of the Future at Sheffield’s Manufacturing Park, AMRC received initial government funding of £5.93m from the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as financial support from the Regional Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward, the European Union regional development fund and the University of Sheffield.

Moreover, says Professor Ridgway, “As a central partner — providing a £10m golden handshake for the project — Boeing maintains a ten year commitment to invest in research and development in science and manufacturing at the facility.” Tier 1 membership of AMRC amounts to £200,000 annually, with partners taking an individual seat on the board and an opportunity to influence the direction of future research. While members such as Boeing, BAE, Messier-Dowty, PTC and MAG Cincinnati participate in, and obtain the result of, all generic projects, they may additionally specify any number of individual projects which are presented to the board for ranking and approval as funds become available. The £30,000 Tier 2 membership entitles companies to engage in all generic projects, while also being represented by a single board member.

With 50 partners — 20 Tier 1 and 30 Tier 2 — currently on board, AMRC’s modus operandi remains, says Ridgway, “Reducing production times by a factor of five; a target we seldom fail to achieve. So, for example, when undertaking work on a titanium disk for Rolls-Royce we utilise dynamic machining techniques which allow our companies to significantly increase the ‘chatter threshold’ in the manufacturing methods. Given that many of the materials members are interested in — titaniums; nickel alloys; inconel; composites — require slower or softer machining than used in the industry, moreover, we were required to develop advanced process damping techniques to cut with significantly higher removal rates than ever achieved before: another AMRC unique offering.” Similarly, Messier-Dowty, having never supplied landing gear to a commercial aircraft prior to its involvement with AMRC, was recently selected as the preferred supplier for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner — the world’s first airliner to use composite materials for the majority of its construction.

“If you consider the supply chain as a whole for Boeing on the 787, you have two engine choices: General Electric or Rolls-Royce, with the market shared evenly,” says Ridgway. “There exists a similar situation with Boeing and Airbus, in that it is not uncommon for companies at AMRC to supply both with components. From our point of view, however, the competitive aspect of such relationships are immaterial. We view our role as simply working with UK suppliers to help them increase market share, whatever and wherever that may be.”

Collaboration stations
It almost goes without saying that those involved with AMRC view the community chiefly as a vehicle through which to further their own manufacturing techniques — a burning philanthropic desire to advance your competitors is, understandably, left at the door. Nonetheless, on closer inspection a palpable sense of mutual beneficiality can be seen to exist within day-to-day life at the facilities.

Explains Ridgway, “If we have 50 partner members at any one time, there will be five companies at the very top of the supply chain that are looking to work with the best suppliers. There is then a group of people who are striving to make themselves more competitive so as to secure those contracts and, finally, you have another set of members who supply those manufacturers with their equipment needs.” By way of example, should Mori Seiki — a manufacturer of CNC machine tools and systems — wish to demonstrate that they can produce a part five times quicker than industry standard, they will incorporate equipment from Sanvik Coromant in the process: a win win situation for all involved, says Ridgway. “We don’t sell, for example, machine or cutting tools here. Very simply, we create and offer a unique environment within with all parties can collaborate to reach a solution. How anybody in that project uses the results is very much up to them.”

Unsurprisingly, AMRC has, since its inception, been regarded as a highly collaborative environment.

Indeed, confirms Ridgway, “Our facilities were specifically designed so as to encourage collegiate interaction in all that we do.” With staff from both Tier 1 & 2 partners working on site full-time, moreover, rosettes are generally awarded to the project rather than individual companies. So, should Rolls-Royce seek to investigate a particular aspect of additive manufacturing, by putting its people at the heart of the research process and utilising the solutions provided by fellow partners, “We can ensure that the best expertise possible is brought to any given project,” he says.

Daylight robbery?
Let us not kid ourselves, however. Given the fiercely protective nature of the industry’s technological advances, are we to believe that Ridgway and his cohorts have avoided a royal rumble over that which, more than anything, causes manufacturers to sleep with one eye open: intellectual property rights? “Almost without fail, when a company is looking to join us their primary focus is on how any resulting IP will be delineated,” he says. To accommodate such concerns, AMRC operates its projects according to a twofold structure — the first of which is partnerfunded.

All information is owned by AMRC and licensed for use by its partners, given that the resulting work is not strictly confidential nor bound by competition issues: the speed at which titanium can be machined being one such example.

Conversely, he says, “When it comes to how a particular engine part is machined or a material that one of our members is specifically seeking to develop, the company will insist on retaining the IP and, accordingly, pay for the project separately.

As such, they are able to complete the work by using our machines at a preferential rate, with approximately 60% of projects undertaken on site falling under this banner.”

It’s all academic
While not providing on-site teaching capabilities due to VAT restrictions, central to AMRC’s ability to provide globally-leading aerospace supply chain solutions is its affiliation with the University of Sheffield: one of the project’s original partners.

Indeed, as part of the Department of Engineering, “We enjoy a relationship with the university whereby we can bring staff in to work on a range of our projects, which they can then take back for further application,” explains Ridgway, whose background includes lecturing posts at the Universities of Manchester, Staffordshire and Sheffield.

“Crucially, however, and maintaining the secure nature of our operations, while faculty members may be working on an advanced modeling tool, for example, in bringing the application back to AMRC it must remain confidential — and not go the other way.

“As such, we enjoy the considerable benefits of such a relationship: the use of world-class equipment and brain-power, a steady stream of funding and the capacity to enable Sheffield’s academics to engage with industry-leading manufacturing techniques. When it comes to the details of certain projects, however, it remains vital that we maintain a secure environment. The same goes for the nuclear side of things.”

A Nu dawn
A joint initiative with industry, the University of Sheffield and the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute, the Nuclear AMRC (NAMRC) operates according to the same — highly successful — model as its aerospace older sibling. Launched by Lord Mandelson in December 2009, and representing a vital feature of government’s Low Carbon Industrial Strategy, it will seek to prepare British companies for the first wave of new nuclear build in the UK.

Enjoying 8,000m2 state of the art manufacturing demonstration facilities a stone’s throw from Ridgway’s office, and with extended research laboratories in Manchester, NAMRC will assist its consortium members with the nuclear accreditation process and quality standards; enhancement of manufacturing techniques; development of company workforces; and the culture required for success in the nuclear industry, among others.

“Ultimately,” says Ridgway, “while there are some excellent UK-based companies working in the civil nuclear market, we need to be honest in saying that much of the expertise in new build capabilities vanished with the retirement of those working in the 1970s. The challenge, therefore, is how to both develop and rejuvenate our nuclear supply chain so as to enhance what we already have, thus further enhancing the UK manufacturing industry.” With the vast majority of power stations built by foreign companies such as Areva and Westinghouse, how can British manufacturers seek to penetrate such air-tight supply chains — seemingly a closed shop up to this point? Firstly, he says, we need to ascertain the specific requirements required for nuclear supply work; with answers forthcoming in six months, preferably less. From there, those companies need to be in a position whereby they can move to win contracts and supply the industry by the year’s end: easier said than done, surely? “There’s little point obfuscating the issue,” Ridgway asserts, “this is going to be a lot of work over the next three decades. However, in representing the focal point for the UK’s civil nuclear manufacturing industry, and building on the expertise gained through our decade here, NAMRC will sit at the forefront of enhancing nuclear manufacturing capabilities — assisting members to increase quality, reliability and efficiency, and reducing costs and complexity.” Easy said; easy done, it appears.