MTC opens innovation hub to put UK on the map for metal additive manufacturing

On October 15 2019, the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, UK, opened a new innovation hub for metal additive manufacturing. Marking a new stage for the award winning DRAMA project, the facility acts as a physical testbed for the integration of full, digitally-linked, 3D printing process chains in the aerospace sector. Its foundation has been supported by £11 million in investment from the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

Invited to the inauguration, 3D Printing Industry was given a tour of the new facility, with the chance to speak with DRAMA collaborators about the current challenges to AM adoption, how this facility aims to tackle those head-on, and how the whole project is putting the UK on the map for 3D printing.

MTC and DRAMA project representatives including Chief Engineer Dr. Katy Milne (second from right) and Dr. Simon Weeks, CTO of the Aerospace Technology Institute (center) at the inauguration of the new innovation hub. Photo via The MTC
MTC and DRAMA project representatives including Chief Engineer Dr. Katy Milne (second from right) and Dr. Simon Weeks, CTO of the Aerospace Technology Institute (center) at the inauguration of the new innovation hub. Photo via The MTC

Sharing knowledge and creating UK excellence in AM

Commencing in 2017, DRAMA is a three year project focused on developing “Digital Reconfigurable Additive Manufacturing facilities for Aerospace.” For this purpose, it is split in two parts. On the one hand, DRAMA researcher are developing training courses to address the additive manufacturing skills shortage, in collaboration with the neighboring Advanced Manufacturing Training Center (AMTC). And, on the other side, the project has a whole digital element: creating an online knowledge hub for 3D FAQs, and a digital twin environment to help integration in factories.

Having launched a pilot training program earlier this year, the innovation hub has been created as a physical engine for data collection to support DRAMA’s digital twin development. In this  facility, businesses are given the opportunity to trial 3D printing process chains before applying them in their own production environments. The service is offered to these parties through a selection of packages, each tailored to help achieve a specific purpose. As an example, KW Special Projects (KWSP) has selected the “Factory set-up” package requesting DRAMA’s help in setting up its new £3.4 million Digital Manufacturing Center in Silverstone Park. Conversely, Hyde Aero Products, a design and manufacturing service in Manchester, is requesting DRAMA’s help with setting up a new 3D printing subsidiary through the “Business case” package.

In return for DRAMA’s expertise and use of the new innovation hub, partners deliver proven case studies to the MTC that can help build its comprehensive data set, and attract new potential clients to the additive manufacturing sector, furthering industry-wide adoption.

Inside the metal additive manufacturing innovation hub of the MTC. Photo via The MTC
Inside the metal additive manufacturing innovation hub of the MTC. Photo via The MTC

As a demo facility, the metal 3D printing innovation hub at the MTC is segmented in to six parts: software, powder management, production, post-processing, inspection and material storage. A micro-factory of sorts, the idea with the facility is that clients will come in and be given their own dedicated area of the floor to carry out their 3D printing project. Any classified machine jobs can also be sealed off by the team to protect IP and handle sensitive tasks. In their work with the MTC, partners are provided with their own dedicated DRAMA engineers to help see the project through to completion. Once proven at this facility, the client can then make an informed decision about their next steps, e.g. integrating the process in their own factory, or producing parts through a third party.

A multi-pronged launch at the MTC, the DRAMA project made its free additive manufacturing Knowledge Hub live to the public this week. This online portal comprises two aspects, the “Knowledge Hub” documentation from the MTC’s National Centre for Additive Manufacturing (NCAM) about various 3D printing processes; and the DRAMA “Adoption Tracker” which provides a checklist of all the things a facility requires in order to integrate AM.

DRAMA's additive manufacturing Knowledge Hub home[age. Image via The MTC
DRAMA’s additive manufacturing Knowledge Hub homepage. Image via The MTC
iQluster, a DRAMA project partner in software, also had a launch at the event. Its AM-UK Connects platform, created to fulfill a goal outlined by the UK government, is a kind of search engine, specifically created to help businesses find the right service providers and/or distributors for their 3D printing projects.

Combined, each of these new tools, both digital and physical, are in their own way aligned with the UK’s digital strategy: “to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone.” In turn, the hope is that such a strategy will strengthen the British economy  “for the long term” particularly in light of the nation’s exit from the European Union.

Additive manufacturing: the time is now

Following these landmark launches, the MTC is seeking customers willing to uptake DRAMA packages. From here, the researchers will continue building their digital platform to be able to provide partners with the most advanced dataset in the industry, and build more comprehensive training programs for each area of the process chain.

Speaking frankly of what the future will hold for the project and additive manufacturing in general, Dr. Katy Milne, DRAMA’s Chief Engineer, commented, “We’re not sure how it will turn out [yet], but projects like DRAMA are all about readiness of the supply chain, making you aware, [and] giving you the tools so that you can take the right steps at the right time.”

In addition, she said, “Additive is also an opportunity, for things like maintenance, repair, new materials. Thermal management is a mature application in additive manufacturing and that will drive the electric revolution.”

“If you’re not already engaged, then it’s something you really need to think very seriously about soon.”

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Featured image shows Dr. Simon Weeks, CTO of the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) cutting the ribbon on the MTC’s new metal additive manufacturing innovation hub. Photo via The MTC