MACH: This is a machine’s world…

Posted on 10 Jun 2010 by The Manufacturer

Mark Young scouts out some of the latest innovations at MACH2010.

The legacy of manufacturing as a dirty, labour intensive industry will reside no longer in any visitor to MACH this week; the conference is a chrome finished city of high precision lasers, robots, saws, water jet cutters, brushes, lathes. The Terminator looks a tame design next to some of the machines here and we’re still about twenty years off his time yet.

You hear so much from government about advanced manufacturing but visiting MACH and seeing it all under one roof really drives home the point; there are some fantastic bits of kit available which as well as providing the platform upon which advanced manufacturing can happen, are amazing feats of engineering in themselves. The only shame is the industry’s tendency to crow only quietly within its own roost and its inability to covey where it’s at to the outside of the world.

Five axis machining centres are a hot topic at MACH this year, with the likes of Haas, Mori Seiki and Dugard all bringing along their latest models. They are “very much the in vogue thing at the moment,” according to Haas commercial director Pat Fenn. That’s not because the technology is new, more that recently it has become very affordable. Haas its VF-2 ‘super speed’ five axis vertical machining centre – one which is simply and easily downgraded to three axis if that’s sufficient for the task in hand. The standard version of the Haas five axis – i.e. not the super speed – is available from £70,000.

As well as following the market trend, Haas, as the world’s largest manufacturer of machine tools by volume, has been able to keep its end prices down through economies of scale as well.

Fenn – who is also on the board of directors of the Advanced Manufacturing Resource Centre – says the pharmaceutical industry has retained a strong presence on order books during the recession, which is no surprise given the obvious necessity for medication and advances there-in. More surprisingly, though it is essentially a leisure-based industry, Fenn cites motor sport as another. “People will always find the money if they really want to play,” he says.

He says aerospace and automotive suffered during the recession but demand from these sectors is beginning to pick up.

On automotion in general, Fenn says these machines could well be the answer to a much documented skills shortage which Fenn thinks has probably been exacerbated by laid off workers leaving the industry altogether. “These machines don’t need to eat, they don’t need to smoke and they don’t get tired. Their efficiency level remains constant all day. Set up properly, they will not deviate and they will not defect.

ABB Robotics has gone one better though. The smallest robot it makes, the IRB 120, is a 25kg six axis robot. It has a 580mm reach, can handle payloads of 4kg and has a picking cycle for a 1kg load of 0.58s. On one of the company’s two displays the robot has been put it to the task of writing welcome messages to delegates in handwriting more neatly formed than most of us could ever hope to achieve. Impressive as that is, it has far better applications in picking, handling, inserting and the like. It runs off a common-or-garden three pin plug and a 240v electricity supply.

As demonstrated by Fenn’s words and ABB’s display, the idea of automated equipment replicating the flexibility of a human hand but without being prone to the same inevitable uncertainty in efficiency is currently a popular boast among the machine tools industry. Describing its technology, laser marking systems company electrox says: “an amplified beam of parallel light, focused to a very small spot, to create a wide variety of text, images, barcodes etc. Very much like writing with a pen and paper.”

It’s almost as if Mother Nature is the inspiration for what is achievable, only we’ve taken the gifts she’s given us and used them to iron out the design flaws – transcend the limitations. The student becomes a scholar irrevocably and forever.

Electrox lasers are used to engrave plastics, metals, wood, cardboard, glass, foils and fabric with the lettering on keyboards, the numbers on mobile phones, high definition gobos for light shows, draw instructions on gear levers – just about any of the things you see marked irreversibly on the innumerable objects you come into contact with day by day but rarely if ever stop to wonder how it is been done to such a standardise finesse and never wears off. Lasers are the modern day answer and are fast becoming method of choice.

Lasers can’t just mark of course; they can now cut, just as well as and arguably better than any blade. Most new technology has to be seen to be believed at first and this is no exception but its true; a beam of light can really cut through steel. Adige’s LT Fiber Lasertube – the daddy of them all at MACH – achieves this in fine fashion. It resembles an oversize tanning bed but you’d get much more than tangoed if you were inside while it was in business.

Adige utilises true fibre laser technology in which the beam is generated directly inside the optic fibre itself. Compared to other methods whereby the beam is created externally then channelled through a fibre, this approach is less energy intensive, provides a faster cutting speed to laser power ratio and enables highly reflective materials to be processed. Changeovers from one job to another take just two minutes and are all controlled through the CNC, with no operator intervention or changing of parts.

Finally, 3D printing of products as a form of manufacturing has been touted as a big part of the industry’s future for a while now and this technology has its tail feathers fully fanned out at MACH.

Objet is displaying two of these printers, the entry level Alaris30 and the multi-material Connex350, which can produce parts such as wires and cables, grips and handles, plugs, shock absorbers and gaskets. As a demonstration of the Connex350, I was presented with a fully operational miniature spanner with three distinct sections made from different materials put printed fitted as a single piece. The company says this use of multiple materials in a single build is unique to its technology.

The desk-top printers work by producing ultra thin layers of UV curable polymers on top of one another to make the product. The layers produced by the Alaris are 28-micron in size while from the Connex they are 16-micron. A micron is a thousandth of a millimetre, don’t you know.

You can imagine that this lot isn’t cheap though. One of the finance companies I spoke to at MACH said they were buoyant at the moment with money to lend (they would though, wouldn’t they?) but they repeated a message long spoken by manufacturers before and repeated here: capital allowances are imperative.

The Tory election manifesto promised cuts to corporation taxes, partly funded by reductions in capital allowances. This would not provide inspiration for companies to snap up these capabilities. I’m not sure whether George Osborne or indeed Vince cable intend to visit MACH this week but with the ‘emergency’ budget just around the corner it would be a fine thing for manufacturing if they did.