At the recent Manufacturing Technologies Asia 2017 exhibition held in Singapore, Renishaw exhibited a range of products, including its 5-axis scanning technology for coordinate measuring machines (CMMs). But the company is also introducing additive manufacturing to the region, with a focus on metal manufacturing companies and drive for greater industrial process control.
Q: For Renishaw’s precision measurement and process control line, are there any new products that you would like to introduce to our readers?
Steve Bell (SB): We are also introducing new ways of using the technology that we already have. The main one would be particularly our Equator line. We are also launching something called Intelligent Process Control; that means that we not only use a gauging system to find out what you did wrong in the machine tool, but actually using our gauging systems to process in-control.
Q: What are some recent trends you are seeing in metrology for metalworking?
SB: The big change for us that we have seen is that we were initially pioneers for CMM probing. That is very much of the end of the production process activity, and checking what has already been made.
For many years, that was what we were about. The huge difference now is that we are more involved in industrial process control. Almost all of our industrial products are moving into that area. For this, we are talking about the beginning of the manufacturing process. You have the machine that will make the part, then you have calibration equipment to calibrate the machine—which is the foundation of the manufacturing process, which we are involved in.
Then we have machine tool products—tool setters and parts, which is at the process setting stage. That is when you start to cut the metal. Next, we have in-process controls which happen during the metal cutting process. In this stage, there are probes and the equator gauging system and a lot of different products involved in trying to control this process. In many cases, the process is controlled automatically.
For example, our Equator gauging system looks at parts coming directly from the machine tool and checks the dimensions of the parts that uses the data from the inspections to give feedback to the machine tool, and correct the machine tool offsets for the next parts to be manufactured. That means rather than waiting for a process to go out of control and make scrap, we are actually correcting the process before it gets the chance to go wrong.
This is very much tied up with the ideas of Industry 4.0. These are things which many companies are talking about, and this is something which we are practicing. We do it not only in terms of providing these types of services to our customers, but in the manufacturing of our own parts back in the UK.
Q: Renishaw is introducing metal additive manufacturing systems (AM). What applications will these AM systems see?
Additive manufacturing can reduce weight from
an object whilst maintaining it's strength
SB: For us, additive manufacturing is the highlight of the show for Renishaw. In our booth, we are showing the AM 400 machine which has up until now been our bestseller; it handles all kinds of different materials.
Most customers for AM have tended to be universities and R&D institutions. This type of customers’ motivation is to try and understand what this technology can do—to play and experiment and we will continue to support that. But what we are trying to do now, it is to push additive manufacturing for production.
Renishaw’s drive is towards metal manufacturing companies, industrial process control. We are very much involved at looking at manufacturing processes and trying to improve them. In the same vein, we would now like to take the technology out of the R&D lab and into the production line. That is at the China International Machine Tool Show, we launched the Rand AM 500, which is the next version of our AM.
The AM 400 will still be a very important machine for us and we will continue selling them to R&D facilities—as it allows for the change of materials very often and they can keep experimenting and trying different things on it.
The AM 500 incorporates powder recirculation, which means the metal powder which is not melted during the process in the machine is recirculated, filtered and reloaded into the machine automatically so the process continues. This means the machine never has to stop. All that needs to be done is topping up the powder at certain points, and the machine does not have to be stopped.
Obviously because it operates in that way, it means each machine is dedicated to one powder. So if a customer decides they want to build parts using stainless steel, they would choose that particular powder for the AM 500. If they need to constantly change materials, the AM 400 would be the way to go.
For us, we want to make batch production using AM more of a reality for a lot of customers. We want to take it from R&D institutions into the production line.
Q: Why should manufacturing sectors such as automotive and aerospace consider implementing AM systems?
AM can be used to designed specific parts which cannot be
made by conventional means
SB: Any sectors, particularly these two and also manufacturers for bicycles, and any other sectors that involve moving transport should consider AM systems. One of the key components of AM for these sectors is to try to remove weight from the products. This is something that AM does very well.
Instead of getting strands in a product part that is completely solid, for example on a bicycle frame, an alternative would be to use AM technology and actually have thinner walls in the component, like a lattice wall, which will provide support.
Customers can actually achieve the same strands in these components and have weight reduced from the component. This is important for things like bicycles, and we have had a lot of success with mountain bikes—the parts would last longer than with using conventional materials.
In aerospace, every kilogram that can be removed from the structure of the plane saves fuel and money, which is a key area. At the moment on the aerospace side, particularly on the non-flight critical parts, there is a big drive to use AM parts. Taking away solid and heavier parts keeps the strength of the object and removes the weight.
Q: As additive manufacturing is time consuming, taking hours to produce a single part, can the processes be improved and quickened?
SB: Some products take two to four hours to produce, and some might take even up to 15 to 20 hours. The technology is still in its infancy, so there are lots of different development programmes ongoing. One of them is to see how we can speed up the process, and there are lots of ideas for how that could happen.
Other ideas include introducing new materials, and also to improve the monitoring system in the machine so that we can ensure there is more consistency in the final result. There are lots of drivers toward improvement, and speeding up the machines is only one of them, amongst many other possible solutions.
Q: Since this is a “disruptive” technology, meaning that the process is very different from traditional manufacturing processes, will there be any other kinds of support you offer?
An operator measuring parts of an object on the Equator system
SB: One of the things to think about is that on our Renishaw system, pretty much everything on the system, including the software, is made by us. Most of the other manufacturers are using software packages that they outsource, so they do not have direct control over the development of those products. For us, we have our own QuamAM software and it is developed in-house by us. It is our platform, so we have total control over future development.
For support to our customers, having the right support for this technology is absolutely vital. Especially around Asia, we have taken a very structured approach to the launch of AM. We do not try to sell AM machines in every country. We set up support first, before setting up the machines for our customers—to ensure they have the support they need.
Customers need support for this especially in the beginning, as in most cases they are not very experienced with the technology, and they need a helping hand in the beginning. As a result of this, around this region, we have focused on China. We have been successful in China, and we have a big support centre there.
We then have moved from there to Australia and New Zealand. It is a very niche area where AM has become very popular. Again, we have put people into that area. Now we are doing the same in Taiwan and Singapore. We have had recent successes in both countries, and that is where we are focusing on. There would not be a point to move into the market without having the support structure in place first.
Q: What are some of the challenges you foresee in introducing AM to the region?
SB: The challenges include having the infrastructure behind the company. You have to make sure that you support your customers. In Singapore, people now know about AM. They are open to the technology and they have a big interest in it. But first, a lot of companies still need to understand what the technology can do for them in particular.
AM is not the answer to all manufacturing needs. The vast majority of parts would still be made by conventional means, as it is more economical and faster. AM is usually designed for particular parts which cannot be made by conventional means. That is the big education challenge for us—to make sure customer’s expectations are correct, that we sell AM machines and technology to the right kind of customers, for the right kind of applications.
Q: Any other thoughts you would like to share with readers?
SB: I would say that we see the AM market in the region as growing. As I mentioned, we are trying to design our machines with production in mind. We can see in the market that we are talking to companies who are not in the R&D field, and who are really looking into building parts for production. We are still far for the peak of demand of AM machines, and there is much room for growth in this market.
APMEN Metrology & Design, May/June 2017