Remanufacturing: Is this the key to the circular economy?

Michael Ward, Technical Director at the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC), discusses the opportunities for manufacturers to reduce waste and improve productivity through ‘remanufacturing’, made possible thanks to new hybrid tooling technology.

No sensible manufacturer likes waste. Waste – whether of time, energy or materials – has been a common enemy since man first started to use tools.

Through revolutions in manufacturing processes, waste reduction has remained a top priority for firms looking to improve their productivity and competitiveness. So it’s no surprise that the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, with its passion for supporting UK manufacturing performance through the development and application of advanced manufacturing technologies, is devoting time to helping manufacturers eradicate waste.

Waste prevention

Many will already be familiar with the ‘7 wastes’ of lean manufacturing, but as manufacturers start to think more about a circular economy, you’ll increasingly start to hear talk of the ‘4Rs’ of waste prevention: reduce, reuse, recycle, recover.

We’re used to 4Rs of waste prevention. Is there a 5th?

Remanufacturing - We're used to 4Rs of waste prevention. Is there a 5th?

Here the Catapult has been leading investigations into ‘remanufacture’, the process of returning a used product to at least its original performance, which has the potential to save tens of millions of tonnes of material waste worldwide and cut the carbon emissions associated with making new products.

But there’s a problem: negative perceptions of remanufactured products, traditionally viewed as inferior to new products, and concerns over the material properties of a part that has been restored to use are a well-recognised barrier to adoption of remanufacture.

For most manufacturers, the default response to a failed component is to purchase a new one. With the weight of regulatory compliance on their shoulders and the desire to avoid further problems, that response is, perhaps understandable, but it’s not always the right conclusion.

In reality, the cost of new parts, the lengthy lead time it can take to get hold of them (many weeks in some cases), the expense of stalled production until they arrive, and the increased carbon footprint generated by waste metal, can mean that remanufacture is a better option.

Advanced Forming Research Centre

The AFRC's hybrid LMD and CNC device Image: AFRC
The AFRC’s hybrid LMD and CNC device Image: AFRC

But what about that nagging doubt that a remanufactured component just won’t cut the mustard? New technologies like laser metal deposition (LMD) using high-precision near-net-shape processing and a unique combination of lasers offer the potential not just to restore a component but to add new or extra features to improve its performance.

In a collaboration with Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies Ltd, the HVM Catapult’s team at the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) showed how the technology can work within one retrofitted legacy machine tool.

The team integrated cutting-edge LMD technology by retrofitting a CNC machine to create a bespoke platform – the first of its kind in Scotland, and one of very few across the world. The hybrid LMD machine can repair, rework and remanufacture.

The technology can also build added features, corrosion-resistant coatings and high-performance coatings for high-value components.

Additive and subtractive technology

During the LMD process, metal powder is blown into the path of a high-powered laser. It is then melted onto a component or substrate in single beads, which are then built up in layers until the final desired geometry is achieved.

Making use of metrology technology, engineers can then employ non-destructive testing using a range of probes on frequencies up to 5MHz to examine any surface or subsurface cracks and voids several layers deep, enabling engineers to produce quality assured product.

This combination of additive technology with subtractive machining allows manufacturers to complete a whole remanufacture within one machine, minimising set up time and increasing accuracy.

The hybrid technology can be retrofitted to most existing CNC machines, which many manufacturers will already have on their factory floor. This means that for a relatively low cost, the machine tool can be upgraded to allow for an additive and subtractive platform all within one machine.

Designed for easy integration within one digital platform, LMD provides a more affordable solution for smaller or growing firms that are looking to adopt new technologies and expand their capabilities without purchasing a brand-new or dedicated additive manufacturing machine.

This article first appeared in the March/April issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe

Tool and die – beyond repair and recondition

The mechanical properties and precision offered by LMD technology are generating increased interest from manufacturers across a range of sectors from oil and gas to aerospace.

More refined than traditional welding and machining, the technology enables performance specifications and product warranty at least equal to that of a newly manufactured equivalent. It allows manufacturers to say with confidence that a part has been remanufactured to the original specification rather than simply repaired or reconditioned.

The appetite to investigate application of the technology has prompted the AFRC to develop a new consortium to revolutionise the UK’s tool and die sector, paving the way for low-cost remanufacture within the industry. One of the first applications is in die repair.

Working with Toolroom Technology Limited (TTL), Applied Tech Systems (ATS), Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies (HMT), INSPHERE Ltd and Kimber Mills International, the DigiTool project, funded by Innovate UK, encourages the use of new technologies and processes to remanufacture worn dies instead of replacing them, saving on costs and materials, while also boosting sustainability.

The £1.2m project is the biggest investment of its kind within the tool and die sector for over 40 years. Initial trials have been carried out for analysis of a die for a forestry vehicle application from Kimber Mills, with plans to remanufacture and bring worn dies back into service.

AFRC enabling the supply chain

Additive manufacturing may be a daunting technology for firms to invest in and integrate into their operations, but the AFRC is confident that LMD is faster to get up and running than powder-bed-fusion.

The relative ease with which the technology can be applied should make it easier for firms to enter the remanufacturing market, opening up significant new opportunities. The AFRC’s ambition is to assist with this transition, acting as a bank of knowledge and a link into the supply chain.

Crawford Cullen, Senior Manufacturing Engineer at the Advanced Forming Research Centre Image: AFRC
Crawford Cullen, Senior Manufacturing Engineer at the Advanced Forming Research Centre. Image: AFRC

As Crawford Cullen at the AFRC comments; “If we can realise the many opportunities of LMD, we can save, material, time, money, and factory floor space to offer a more competitive supply chain for manufacturing within the UK. With mindfulness on scarce resources, we’re also helping industry to boost its sustainability.”

Tom Taylor, of the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), says that the organisation’s focus on helping manufacturers to operate more sustainably will remain central to the Catapult’s activities.

“We’ve set ourselves a strategic objective to really accelerate the resource-efficient manufacturing that enables a global circular economy,” Tom says. “The High Value Manufacturing Catapult has a vital part to play in reducing society’s overall impact on our environment and delivering the goal of net-zero carbon emissions. Remanufacture is just part of a much bigger story.”