Metalworking and metalforming - AFRC and CBM partnership

4 min read

Two sheet metal/forming-related entities have announced a new partnership, designed to benefit all those involved in such operations. Steed Webzell attended the launch event

Around 125 delegates gathered at the National Metalforming Centre in West Bromwich to hear details of a new partnership between the Confederation of British Metalforming (CBM) and the University of Strathclyde's Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC, pictured). Together, they hope to shape the future of metalforming in a way that will impact extremely positively on UK manufacturers involved in this highly competitive segment. The CBM is an association for companies in the forging, pressing and sheet metalforming industries. It has around 200 member companies that, in total, employ 40,000 people and generate turnover topping £3 billion. In contrast, the AFRC was only formed in 2010 and has just 17 members, although its rapid growth is little short of breathtaking. For instance, the AFRC site at Glasgow is currently being doubled in size to 5,400 m². Furthermore, around 70 employees are already on-board (120 expected by 2015) and the site plays host to machinery worth around £7 million, with an additional £7 million earmarked for 2013. In his presentation, Dr Paul Blackwell, chief of engineering at the AFRC, invited CBM members to engage in deciding where that money should be spent. AN OPPORTUNITY FOR SMEs This sentiment captures the spirit of what the new partnership is all about. Potentially, CBM members are prime beneficiaries of the research undertaken at the AFRC. In turn, the AFRC needs the input of CBM members to help identify potential research themes. "This is an opportunity for SMEs to get involved in larger initiatives affecting the sector," said Dr Blackwell. "To follow on from today, we will be staging a series of workshops and road-mapping sessions to see how we can best address the challenges and opportunities facing CBM members." The AFRC is among a consortium of seven world-leading research centres that constitute the Technology Strategy Board's £200 million Catapult network for high value manufacturing. As such, it can offer capabilities that extend from material/process characterisation, residual stress analysis and die life management, through to heat treatment, super-plastic forming and sheet forming. Key activities include core research programmes, direct-funded research, technology fore-sighting and knowledge exchange. According to Dr Blackwell, among the current challenges are higher quality materials, improved tooling, improved process control and new techniques that range from net shape forming through to novel metal-heating methods, such as microwave. Although less than three years down the road, the AFRC is already delivering significant achievements. Ian McMahon, head of engineering at Scottish Enterprise, an AFRC investor, said that these include: £1 million a year in productivity savings to tier one member Rolls-Royce; net gross value added (GVA) to date of £3.4 million per annum; and one Knowledge Transfer Partnership providing £118,000 GVA. Another speaker at the launch event, Dr Steven Halliday – the AFRC's partnership co-ordinator for Rolls-Royce – stated that two areas in which the pair had been collaborating with great success were hot forging die life and cold rotary forging. The former involved the manufacture of high volume nickel aerofoils, where early die failure was having a huge impact on production. Here, the AFRC was able to develop processes that could assess the failures, and inform Rolls-Royce why they had occurred and what could be done to resolve the issue. The upshot: die life was doubled. Information such as this would clearly be beneficial to CBM members, too, a potential outcome that clearly excites Barry Yeomans, the organisation's president. "Our long-standing relationship with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills [BIS] is what led to the potential for a relationship with the AFRC," he said. "It will bring together the industrial and research elements of our sector, allowing us to share knowledge and facilities. Retaining successful manufacturing and supply chains in the UK is something we all see as vital – and CBM members will be at the forefront of this partnership." The initiative has the full support of Adrian Bailey, who is not only the chairman of the House of Commons All-Party Select Committee for BIS, but also the MP for West Bromwich West. A MODEL FOR OTHERS "The Catapult initiative has cross-party support and, if this partnership between the CBM and the AFRC succeeds, it could provide a model for others," he said. Ultimately, this ambitious move will bring together scientists, engineers, academics and global OEMs, all with the aim of driving radical change into Britain's biggest industrial giants and their supply chains. CBM operations director Geraldine Bolton said the partnership will officially run for five years, but expects the relationship to become permanent. "The AFRC already has established relationships with six aerospace 'primes', and is diversifying into other sectors requiring cutting-edge engineering and technology solutions, including automotive, defence, energy, offshore and oil," she said. "This relationship is a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn more about the technology that will shape our sector's future and to help us identify the immense challenges we face. "It's partly about being able to increase the ability of our sector to compete with both low-cost offshore locations and the fast-growing economies of southeast Asia, but also it's about meeting the needs of OEMs and their global tier one suppliers," she added. "The opening of our headquarters in West Bromwich was a defining moment in the CBM's long history and this is another major step in our continued evolution. It is not an exaggeration to call this partnership the start of a new era." Box item 1 Valley of death Robin Wilson, the lead technologist in high value manufacturing at the Technology Strategy Board, explained that the TSB receives around £300 million a year from government, via BIS, for investment. This money is used to help bridge what he called the 'valley of death' – the area between Technology Readiness Level 3 and TRL 6 or 7. At TRL 3, even if an application and a market are believed to exist, there is no evidence that the technology can be built into a product that works in a real environment. As a result, downstream participants lack confidence, narrowing the scope for investment interest. So either there is no investment or it is limited, such that development takes place too slowly – interest and enthusiasm wanes when instead it should build. The TSB provides funding based on five strategic themes and 22 manufacturing competencies. Funding decisions are made by teams of independent assessors, normally comprising a team of five. Box item 2 Developing the future Phase 1 of the AFRC was launched in 2007, following a commitment of £44.3 million. A total of £16 million was pledged from Scottish Enterprise, with a further £15.2 million from members (over 10 years) and £13.2 million from the University of Strathclyde (over 10 years). Phase 2 commenced in 2011, supported by £33 million from private investors, £32.3 million from the public purse and £3.3 million from Scottish Enterprise. Aside from Rolls-Royce, the other four AFRC?Tier One members are Boeing, Barnes Aerospace, Timet and Aubert & Duval – each of which contribute £200,000 for the privilege. Below this level, and paying £25,000 each year, current Tier Two members include Fanuc Robotics (02476 639669), GOM (02476 639 920) and Renishaw (01453 524524), among others. First published in Machinery, May 2013