Is there already a successor to additive layer manufacturing?

While the digital revolution disrupting manufacturing has grabbed most of the headlines, revolutionary engineering processes are being developed that could have an equally profound impact on the sector.

MetLase I4.0 Digital pipe checking fixture.
MetLase I4.0 Digital pipe checking fixture.

MetLase is based at the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Sheffield and was launched in 2015, is a joint venture between Unipart Group and Rolls-Royce.

The engineering company’s ethos is to use the best engineers and patented technology to create tooling and ‘fixturing’ that solves problems in days rather than months, and at a lower cost to alternatives – their pricing is typically three-times less than additive layer manufacturing.

For example, MetLase has worked with Williams Advanced Engineering to produce bonding fixtures to assemble a complete Lightweight Electric Car Platform in just nine days; alternative technologies would have taken at least three months.

Patented precision

MetLase’s technology is based on a set of patented joining methodologies, precision laser-cutting and press-brake bending. They can cut a variety of metals with equal precision, as the laser cutter has a tolerance of less than 10 microns, which in most cases is at least 10-times more accurate than additive layer manufacturing (ALM).

“As long-serving engineers, we have often been through the conventional rapid prototyping process in which the design, prototype creation, modification, assessment and refinement are carried out by different parts of an engineering organisation,” Steve Dunn, managing director of MetLase, explains.

“That process can be long and arduous, even when deploying 3D printing. What is different about MetLase is that we operate on the basis of a single point of ownership for any engineering problem. A single engineer will ‘own’ the project and work with the client to identify the problem, or the opportunity for improvement.

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That same engineer will then design a solution, construct it and iterate it with the customer in order to deliver a highly optimised finished product. There are no middlemen or other dependencies to slow the process, and thus we ensure that our customers receive a quick, innovative and bespoke solution. This is a core aspect in which we differ from just using a process such as ALM.

“The technologies we use, created in the rigorous environment of the aerospace sector, require high precision. For instance, precision laser cutting ensures that each piece is faithful to its design, and that each successive piece is faithful to the first.

advanced manufacturing MetLase six-axis robotic welding modular assembly fixture for lightweight exhaust system.
MetLase six-axis robotic welding modular assembly fixture for lightweight exhaust system.

This is another difference from using a process like ALM, in which layering and multiple interfaces can cause defects in the product. Of course, we do recognise the benefits of using ALM, but we deploy it only in non-critical applications.

“Unlike ALM, MetLase has been consistently proven for use across all aerospace applications, through the entire product cycle. These have ranged from R&D and in-service operation to aftermarket and repair.”

The potential applications for MetLase technology go far beyond the aerospace sector. The company has developed an intelligent, digitally enabled smart workbench in collaboration with the University of Sheffield’s AMRC and Meggitt plc, which takes work instruction to an entirely new level.

MetLase created a universal digital twin chassis that accommodates bespoke attachments. This new workbench ensures that the correct process, with the right parts, is carried out in the correct sequence, to guarantee an outcome that is error free, with zero variation and no fault forward.

Advanced manufacturing

MetLase is perfectly placed to find the best solutions, located as it is at the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Sheffield, part of the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing District and home to other high-value manufacturing companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing, McLaren and the University of Sheffield’s AMRC (Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre).

After becoming a partner at the AMRC, the company has been gaining significant attention due to the success of numerous demonstrator projects, including the Integrated Manufacturing Group (IMG), based in Factory 2050. These projects have included modular fixturing to help develop smart, enabled tooling and intelligent manufacturing systems.

For Steve Dunn, the biggest challenge today is the digital transformation that is driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution: “If the UK is really going to be at the forefront of manufacturing then we need to look at how we can create smart factories with increased productivity and improved efficiency.

Steve Dunn, managing director of MetLase
Steve Dunn, managing director of MetLase.

A process like ALM will not, on its own, be enough to give us this, whereas MetLase has the expertise to enable the implementation of smart-enabled fixtures within a manufacturing process.

“Seeking out new and innovative ways of making our factories smarter is vital to the UK’s future success and that’s why the demand for MetLase is growing and the company has more than doubled in size over the past year.”

Further information on how MetLase has helped solve a wide range of manufacturing problems can be found at: www.metlase.com