TRAM 2015: aerospace industry embraces additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (AM) is a major opportunity for materials translation. Layer-by-layer fabrication gives designers the freedom to specify lightweight and highly-integrated components that would be impossible to manufacture using conventional machining or forging techniques. To find out what AM can deliver today and to discuss what’s in the pipeline, TMR+ spoke to presenters at Trends in Advanced Machining, Manufacturing and Materials (TRAM) 2015 – an event supported by Boeing and organized by the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

For the aerospace industry additive manufacturing is synonymous with powder metallurgy. At the meeting, Robert Smith Graham of Carpenter Technology described the gas atomization technique used by his company to produce powders of alloys based on nickel, iron, cobalt and – in a new venture for the firm – titanium.

Smith Graham stressed the need to define standard metrics for the metallic powders used for aircraft parts, as well as agreed measurement techniques. “The additive manufacturing community has already identified this key issue, and work is already underway with academic institutions, research agencies and other manufacturers to define standard specifications,” he said. “Particle size distribution is one important parameter, and we need to find a consistent way to measure this and other key properties.”

Greg Hyatt of DMG Mori Seiki, a manufacturer of machine tools, highlighted that innovation in laser technology has been crucial for making the technique a viable proposition for aerospace applications. “Commercial laser systems are now capable of producing powers of up to 10 kW,” he said. “This means that we can now deposit kilograms of material per hour rather than grams, which makes the whole process much more cost efficient.”

Hybrid approach
Even so, Hyatt believes that more innovation is need to make additive manufacturing cost-competitive with other metal-processing techniques. He points out that build costs could be reduced significantly by depositing layers onto standard forged parts. “This approach retains the robust mechanical properties of the forged piece, and then additive manufacturing can be used to create fine structures on the part surface. This offers real added value at a much lower cost.”

At the same time, additive manufacturing is becoming more precise, making it possible to tailor the mechanical properties for different areas of the component. “We have case studies where we have deposited materials onto existing parts at rates of more than 10 kg per hour,” said Hyatt. “We have also demonstrated how precise additive manufacturing can yield layers with graded composition.”

Hyatt wasn’t able to share the detail of the case studies, but said that good results have been achieved for a rocket motor nozzle. These components must accelerate a large volume of combustion gases to supersonic velocities within a very short distance, and so must be made from materials that can withstand extreme forces and thermal loading. At the same time, their complex structure requires a number of different machining processes to produce using conventional manufacturing techniques.

According to Hyatt, this highly functional type of part is the current sweet spot for additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry. But, as other talks at the conference revealed, many other applications are waiting in the wings for this truly disruptive technology.

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Singapore invests in start-up economy; offers support to materials translation

I was in Singapore last week to find out why the Asian city state ranks number seven in the Global Innovation Index – just behind the USA and well ahead of other regional heavyweights such as Hong Kong and Korea. One thing that impressed me in particular was the level of support offered to start-up companies at all stages of their development, largely through a string of initiatives introduced by the government agency SPRING Singapore. “Our goal is to help SMEs to become more resilient through better funding, by providing access to extended business networks and the infrastructure they need,” said Edwin Chow, SPRING’s executive director for innovation and start-ups.

Singapore skyline

Support network: SPRING Singapore has set up 12 SME Centres to provide business advisory services to enterprises on a range of topics including technology innovation.

Enabling enterprise
Chow is acutely aware that start-ups in materials science need extra support to transfer their ideas to market, since the private investment community is wary of taking on long-term projects where there is no certainty of success. “In materials science it takes more time and more money to develop the initial IP into an income-generating business,” he told me. “For digital start-ups it might take three to five years to reach an IPO, for materials-based companies it can take twice as long.”

That’s why SPRING is investing SGD75m (about £38m) to establish five accelerators focused on clean technology, and advanced manufacturing and engineering – which includes subsectors such as additive manufacturing, robotics, biomaterials and nanotechnology. “Accelerators can act as intermediaries to make riskier propositions more attractive for investors,” said Chow. “With this programme we’re offering the comfort of government backing for a certain length of time.”

SPRING is now inviting proposals from accelerators with proven investment expertise in the high-tech sector, and who will work with the agency to identify and evaluate high-potential start-ups. Accelerators selected through the scheme will be expected to match the funding available from SPRING, with the joint investment capped at SGD 4m for each new business.

Value-added incubation
One of the selection criteria will be a commitment to work closely with start-ups to shorten their time-to-market. As well as business mentoring and enterpreneurship training, accelerators will be tasked with helping new companies to develop customer networks and to secure the necessary infrastructure and resources. According to Chow, successful accelerators will be able to apply for funding to support these value-added incubation activities.

Interested accelerators can find more information online, and proposals should be sent by 6 August 2015 to Successful applicants will be appointed towards the end of 2015 or early 2016.

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The dash for cash: a new funding landscape for high-tech start-ups

Steve Walsh and Ray Quintana at COMS 2013

Ray Quintana (left) and Steve Walsh discuss funding options (Credit: Eric Brinkhorst, COMS 2013)

Business experts speaking at COMS 2013, an annual conference that focuses on the commercialization of micro- and nanotechnologies, offered a stark reminder of the ongoing impact of the global financial crisis on scientists and engineers who want to convert their research into a business venture. Jelto Kromwijk Smit of the Dutch investment firm Prime Ventures said that venture capital funding in Europe has fallen from €8bn in 2007 to €4bn in 2012, which in practice means that most VCs are targeting their investments towards established companies with products that are almost ready for market. Banks and institutional investors have also steered away from the start-up sector as they seek to reduce risk and stabilize their balance sheets.

So far, so pessimistic. But speakers also highlighted several new ways for early-stage companies to raise some cash. Continue reading