Knowledge crucible: MACH seminar programme highlights

Posted on 19 Apr 2012 by Tim Brown
Ian Lowe of Rolls-Royce

What engineering and technology expertise was transferred to captive audiences at MACH 2012? TM reviews the first two days. Follow this section for more on subsequent seminars.


Prof Rob Dorey of Cranfield University

Nanotechnology 

Prof Rob Dorey of Cranfield University helped explain how nanotechnology is being applied to different applications like micro-sensors and hyperspectral imaging for detecting hidden dangers.

His team’s work develops ways of binding incompatible materials, for example ceramic systems with polymer or textile systems. And nanotechnology can enable the growth of materials in situ, which has biochemistry applications in fields like regenerative medicine.

At the heart of much of this work is the piezoelectric, or PZT, sensor – a tiny physio-chemical device that senses pressure and temperature changes and ion conductivity. These micro-sensors can be harnessed to convert energy from simple human actions like sitting down into electricity. Variants of PZT sensors are being used by companies including Cosworth and BAE Systems to generate power from clothing.

Sound-sensitised coatings on an instrument allow them to heavy metals and other noxious substances. The frequency of water these sensors detect will shift if heavy metals are present.

Another highly useful application of nanotechnology ishyperspectral imaging. The sensors reveal non-living materials in the red part of the light spectrum, while natural materials like plant matter comes up green. “This has proven useful for spotting heavily camouflaged vehicles in defence applications.”

What is a mission critical system?

Dr Mike Percival of Rolls-Royce

Dr Mike Percival and Iain Low of Rolls-Royce gave powerful talks each day about the global engineering company’s mission critical applications. Component failure must be avoided at all costs in all Rolls-Royce markets and the presentation showed where some of the engineering giant’s £908 million R&D spending (2011) goes to help minimise risk in manufacture.

One application developed by Rolls-Royce is the fused fan blade and disk, or “blisk”.

Normally, a fan blade would be bonded to the disc base mechanically, involving materials and parts that add to the weight. Rolls developed a linear friction welding process, super-heating the titanium to fuse the two parts in a single weld. “The flash you see [from video] are the impurities burning off, so this process saves weight as well as removing material that is excess to the structural requirements,” says Mr Low.

Vision 10 is one iteration of the company’s long term strategy. One of the projects is to improve engine safety systems to withstand the most unlikely impact scenarios. Blade-off tests use explosives on the fan blades to confirm that the Kevlar belt around the engine absorbs the damage and that it debris does not go into the aircraft body.

Rolls-Royce has been notable by its absence in the wind turbine market. But go to the Orkneys and you’ll find Rolls-Royce technology in a prototype tidal energy system. “Tidal power is very predictable, more so than wind, and if you are an energy supplier you need reliability,” says Low.

JRI Orthopaedics had a great story to tell

JRI was founded in 1969 by a surgeon, Ronnie Furlong, who grew tired of waiting for implants ordered from Germany to arrive. The manufacturing company, which moved to a purpose-built factory in Sheffield in 2007 and now designs and makes everything bar some ceramic components, is going great guns in its core business orthopaedic parts, and new markets.

The company is diversifying successfully into regenerative medical solutions – technology that encourages cell growth from biosynthetic implant placed inside the body.

Technology director of JRI, Dr Edward Draper, who says the 107 employee business is at the medium-end of SME scale, is excited about the company expanding into these new markets as well as growing the core engineering side. “The new ‘smart’ implants is a really exciting field and crosses all the engineering disciplines – mechanical, chemical, biological and systems engineering,” he says.

JRI operates in a global market dominated by a small number of huge companies, with vast R&D budgets and 100s of scientists to develop the latest prosthetic and implant components. How is survives and thrives is a core part of Dr Draper’s story. Firstly, the limited company is owned by a charitable trust – it reinvests most of its profits into the business. For this reason it is very difficult to buy, and would cost an acquirer well over market value.

There is also great merit in being small and being in healthcare, for funding purposes. “As a healthcare SME manufacturer, based in Sheffield, we tick many funding boxes at several levels – regional, national, European Development Fund and also healthcare, a sector the government is pushing to lower NHS costs,” Draper says. “We’ve been able to tap these funds successfully. Also the location, in a pro-manufacturing heartland like Sheffield, is a big advantage and we’ve drawn several real benefits from the network of business support groups like the Sheffield Chamber and the Made in Sheffield brand.”

The service life of a product is critical

Professor Raj Roy, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Through-life Engineering Services at Cranfield

Raj Roy stressed the importance of investing in the whole life cost of products.

Using the example of the car-renting scheme Streetcar, Prof Roy explained that manufacturers would increasingly need to implement Through-Life Engineering into the design of their products in order to remain competitive on an international level.

He used the example of Toyota Machine Handling Group and the company’s mantra of not selling machines, but in effect renting them on a service-based scheme – something he called Product Service Systems (PSS).

Roy explained: “Nearly all machine tool manufacturers like the ones here today offer services like the delivering of spare parts and training. A lot of them have developed remote services and offer special field services in Machine Repair and Overhaul (MRO).”

UK manufacturing suffers from Chronic underinvestment

Trevor Williams, chief economist at Lloyds Bank

Trevor Williams, chief economist at Lloyds Bank plc, told delegates at the MACH 2012 technology that the recessionary period today is the longest the world has experienced and will continue to run.

Opening by saying that no matter which major party was in power public sector cuts would have been the same, Mr Williams told delegates that the recession would last longer than predicted by other commentators including the government.

Commenting on manufacturing, he said: “Compared to the rest of the economy, manufacturing is doing better than the overall economy. [Lloyds] is predicting around 1% growth in the industry this year, and next year we’re looking at manufacturing growth of 2.5%.”

Mr Williams explained that weaker sterling has allowed British exports to become more competitive and in turn GDP has grown. He predicted that while inflation is still relatively high and real wages have fallen during the recession, inflation will gradually fall.

“Unit wage cost has decreased by 10% over the past three years – this is definitely good news for the UK economy,” he said. Unit wage cost is the labour cost of a consistent unit of production, and is an indicator of the level of worker productivity and the prevailing labour costs for companies.

Asked about the state of the Italian economy, Williams said that although Italy faced challenges, “[Italy] will probably be able to meet its debt obligations – the same cannot be said for Spain. Italy is a rich country and Italians save their money; they don’t have to rely on overseas aid to repay their debt.”