The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) is a hub for innovation and creativity. Their advanced research into the fields of manufacturing have benefited a wide range of industry heavy-hitters like Boeing and Rolls Royce.
They use the latest manufacturing technologies to research practical application and contribute to the advancement of numerous manufacturing processes. One of these is additive manufacturing and the AMRC's approach with this is simple - invest in the best technologies and develop concepts and solutions to the point where partners can implement them.
To meet this requirement, the AMRC recently invested in a production line of Form 2 stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers. These are the AMRC's main 3D printers, chosen because they are easy to use and learn from. Over a hundred engineers have access to the production line, enabling them to manufacture any models and parts they draw in CAD.
“It was far better for our site to open that knowledge [of 3D printing] up, to train many users and allow them to use the system and then increase their knowledge based on use," says Mark Cocking, the polymer additive technical lead at the Design and Prototyping Group at the AMRC. "We found that if they have the opportunity to use the units, they're able to come up with more and more concepts for additive manufacturing components.”
“I needed units that staff members can be easily trained on and be successful with so that they want to use them again. The Form 2 is the first small SLA machine that I've used where I thought, ‘yeah, this is a game changer.’ In terms of machinery, it's so simple to use,” Cocking said. “The software is very intuitive; engineers can pick it up very quickly. It's easy for them to understand and grasp the basics, and from there on, they can learn themselves and can push their additive experience themselves. Currently, we have just over 100 engineers trained to use the Form 2 bank."
Open access to boost innovation and output
The AMRC wants to lead the way with additive manufacturing and accelerate innovation - and adoption - of the technology in the manufacturing industry. By giving engineers free and unlimited access to a series of Form 2 3D printers, they culture creative thinking and ensure all viable projects are given a fair chance.
“Engineers no longer have to go through the procedure of paperwork to be able to turn an idea into a printed part; they can just come down here and do that straight away, says Cockings, "It breaks down barriers in terms of internal concept development and there's more innovation that can take place. They can produce components within hours that can be on the meeting table for a partner the same day or maybe the next afternoon.”
In addition to engineering projects, the AMRC works with researchers to develop concepts and solutions for a wide range of industry challenges, to improve things like manufacturing output and operational efficiency. They very often create jigs, fixtures, and other bespoke components to the specifications of researchers which are then used in a wide variety of applications.
The introduction of 3D printing to the production floor has enabled the AMRC to improve their own capability to manufacture bespoke components.
"It has vastly streamlined our operations. [At any point in time], we have hundreds of projects live with hundreds of engineers. Now that staff has access to 3D printing, for every project that requires additive manufacturing, the time to produce components has been streamlined from probably around a week and a half to hours,” says Cocking.
Setting up the 3D printing station
The AMRC's production floor makes use of a wide variety of equipment including laser cutting systems, CNC milling machines, CT scanners and metal laser sintering machines. However, it is the 3D printing area that's most interesting, with the Form 2 3D printer farm consisting of 12 3D printers, 4 Form Cure units and 4 Form Wash units.
There's a large touchscreen display monitor built into the side of the work unit which provides information on the status of prints and material levels. The inclusion of this means engineers can check on prints from one place and control models without any fuss.
The 3D printers are located on one side of the unit, while the Form Wash and Form Cure units are at the back. This setup enables engineers to walk around the unit and inspect the process physically.
Since being installed, the 3D printing station has been used to support dozens of projects and manufacture a wide range of models and parts. These include protective caps for drilling - 500 of them, robot gripper brackets, temperature sensor brackets, and filament winding rollers.
The setup has been so efficient, and so good, Cocking is already planning to expand additive manufacturing capabilities at the AMRC. He plans to replicate the setup and create satellite units across the site so engineers across all departments have access to their own 3D printing station. The setup hasn't gone unnoticed by partners either.
“They [our partners] could reduce turnaround time on custom components from weeks down to hours. Having ordered custom components myself, I understand the lead times and I understand the impact it can have on innovation, but also, ultimately, on the release date of a product. You can bring the release date of your product forward by months just by having access to additive manufacturing.”
“Some of our partners have become more interested in taking an exact replica of this station and introducing that into their own facility. They want something that's easy to use and something that they can scale. You can start off with 12 printers, but you can quite easily replicate that into many different stations as demand increases. Batch-quantity additive manufacturing is possible through multi-platform printers. It's possible right now, and at a good price point,” says Cocking.
3D Printer: Formlabs Form 2.
Materials used: Standard resins.
This information was first published on the Formlabs website.