Research; result - ultra-precision machining

8 mins read

Ever wondered what government science research funding generates? Andrew Allcock reveals how an investment in ultra-precision technologies has generated new manufacturing and process technologies, businesses and education routes – tools to support high value manufacturing

Integrated Knowledge Centres (IKCs). Mean anything to you? How about, more precisely, the Integrated Knowledge Centre in Ultra Precision and Structured Surfaces? Still nothing? Well the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has tipped more than £6.3 million into it, which started January 2007 (grant details here), with this supplemented by £1.2 million from the Welsh Government.

Funded for five years, but given a further one-year extension, the vision for this IKC – a new idea and a model that did not previously exist - was: "To establish a world leading Centre of Excellence that delivers to UK industry 'disruptive' technologies, enabling the development and manufacture of a wide range of next-generation products, which are dependent on functional ultra-precision and structured surfaces.


The funding application continues: "Ultra-precision and structured surfaces are pivotal to a range of high technology products. Many next-generation products will be reliant on such surfaces, which are in increasing demand for components supplying a wide spectrum of markets. These include: optoelectronics and displays; medical devices; aerospace; defence; space; and automotive sectors."

And in underlining the importance of this area of technology in overall terms, it concludes: "The annual turnover of these sectors is over £75 billion in the UK and they represent a major percentage of UK export trade."

With the target defined, the IKC's broad purpose is the taking of research from NASA technology readiness level (TRL) 3 to level 6 – bridging the so-called valley of death. (TRL levels 7-9 are productionising/maturing of products/processes.)

The project's principal investigator, and one originator of the IKC idea, is Professor Paul Shore (biog here), who is McKeown Professor of Ultra Precision Technologies at Cranfield University, as well as head of the Cranfield University Precision Engineering Institute. Professor Shore is one of seven investigators; they are the key drivers of research and development projects, and also publish related academic papers.

The IKC, called UPS², was set up in North Wales, at OpTIC Glyndwr, St Asaph. Allied with Glyndwr University and involved in research and development of cutting-edge opto-electronics technology, OpTIC Glyndwr was set up in 2004 as Welsh business incubation initiative OpTIC Technium (Optoelectronics Technology and Incubation Centre) – it was acquired by Glyndwr University 2009.

University College London and the University of Cambridge joined Cranfield and OpTIC Glyndwr as partners in UPS². These four partners, along with the McKeown Precision Engineering Foundation, topped up the £7.5 million investment with a further £7.4 million of their own.

At an event held in London in June, the fruits of this six-year effort and investment were revealed, with Professor Shore hailing that there was "a most encouraging story to tell". The story, in brief, is one of facilities/capabilities created in the UK; technologies innovated; world-leading services offered; companies aided; spin-off businesses established; and supporting academic learning routes/qualifications established.

From the outset, the IKC had a strong business creation focus, and the setting up of facilities to support commercial durability was key. "If we built capability during the five years, and that capability was required by business or research, we would have some longevity built inside the IKC beyond the EPSRC funding period," Professor Shore explains.


This commercial focus was one of three overlapping elements for UPS², with the other two being an R&D portfolio - "with a very heavy emphasis on development", and knowledge transfer, supported principally by MSc/MBA students working with companies and gaining appropriate qualifications (see online article).

Related investment in these three areas saw over half of the original £7.5 million going to the R&D portfolio; some £800, 000 went into the knowledge transfer programme, paying for students at Cranfield (with this bolstered by the £200,000 McKeown Foundation money); while the remainder went into the Structured Surfaces Laboratory (SSL) and the Ultra-Precision Surfaces Laboratory (UPSL) within OpTIC Glyndwr, which provide commercial longevity.

The four partners' investments paid for upgrading of facilities at the respective universities and, in the case of OpTIC Glyndwr, underpinned the promise of £2.5 million in commercial contracts.

For example, investment at Cranfield saw the existing Hexagon Loxham Precision Engineering Laboratory (see Machinery article, here and also here) upgraded to produce: "For sure, the most impressive free-form optics grinding facility in Europe," according to Professor Shore. The facility, capable of grinding telescope mirror segments up to 1.6 m across, is already processing work for the European Southern Observatory (ESO) programme, ending an approximate 25-year drought for ESO work. "We can make optical surfaces to levels of accuracy that others cannot," the lead investigator stresses, adding that production capacity is also better, which all means that the UK can make high added value parts profitably. Grinding capacity is 50 1.5 metre sized hexagonal mirrors per year for ESO's Extremely Large Telescope project (E-ELT - here), which will require about 800 hexagonal segments for the 39 m diameter primary mirror.

Image: The Hexagon Loxham Precision Engineering Laboratory was upgraded, as part of the UPS² programme - large optic grinding is its focus

Optics Glyndwr facilities provide the finishing processes for the large optics ground at Cranfield, making use of UK-made Zeeko optics polishing machines, for example. Indeed, large optics has been one of the Welsh facility's targets since 2004, when Professor Shore and Dr David Walker (previously at UCL and co-founder of Zeeko) helped make the case to EPSRC for the funding of such a national facility here. UPS² facilities have bolstered what was an established capability at St Asaph, funding the only 10 m full aperture large optics test tower certified for E-ELT segment testing (housed within the UPSL along with Zeeko polishing machinery), while the SSL facility offers precision diamond turning to produce structured surfaces on master rolls that can support the production of, for example, holographic packaging.

Image: The only 10 m full aperture large optics test tower certified for E-ELT segment testing

Between Cranfield and Optic Glyndwr, product manufacturing supported takes in large space optics, reflective clothing, solar concentrators, advanced displays, medical knives, medical films, space observers, machine tools, lithography optics, fusion optics, astronomy optics and national standards.

Fundamentally, the UPS²- established facilities support commercially-available capabilities that are, certainly in the case of the SSL, unique world-wide, Professor Shore claims, on the back of customer testimonials.

Image: The SSL offers a manufacturing capability unique in the world, it is claimed


So what commercial/near-commercial processes, knowledge and technology have resulted? Well, ESO optic production is a commercial business, certainly. OpTIC Glyndwr is bidding to win a proportion of the €100-150 million ESO contract for E-ELT production phase.

Staying with optics, Paul Morantz, School of Applied Sciences, Cranfield University, using the upgraded Loxham Precision Laboratory optics grinding facility, has produced high accuracy optics, used in laser-generated nuclear fusion, at higher rates than currently possible and with a longer service life. Currently working with the US National Ignition Facility, the optics are consumable items, while there is the prospect of wider adoption of laser-based nuclear fusion and so potential future demand.

UPS² also worked with Surrey Satellite Technology to investigate the use of ceramic substrates in place of heavier glass ones for its satellite mirrors. This has not only helped that company, but feeds into space mirror design and manufacture more widely, and may even prompt the development of a European resource for ceramic mirror manufacture where none existed before. Cranfield could be a beneficiary; it is already servicing a number of space optics programmes.

A further UPS² project was to expand the applications of zirconia-based ceramics, currently used as thermal barrier coatings (TBCs) for aerospace turbine blades, to enhance solar thermal collector efficiency by fabricating multilayered structures that exhibit wavelength-selective properties. Driven by Cranfield's John Nicolls, Professor of Coating Technology and Head of the Surface Engineering and Nanotechnology Institute, and Dr Debabrata Bhattacharyya, Research Fellow at the Surface Engineering and Nanotechnology Institute, this has subsequently drawn interest from Rolls-Royce's SILOET fuel economy project (project details here) and is also being taken forward in European FP7 research projects in concentrated solar power (€43 million total project value, all partners). St Asaph will be used to transfer knowledge about TBCs to the UK solar power industry, with the IP protected to generate a revenue stream.

Under Professor Bill O'Neill, University of Cambridge, and Dr Martin Sparkes, senior research associate, Cambridge University Engineering Department, laser-assisted cold spraying of coatings has been developed to lower its cost from as much as £60/hour to £10/hour. In the cold spray coating, material is laid down without heating the coating material above its melting point, avoiding oxidisation or carburisation, for example. Companies such as JCB and medical implant firm Stryker were involved. The result has been a spin-out company, Laser Fusion Technologies, which will draw an income from IP; equipment is manufactured by a US company.

The SSL, which houses a Cranfield-defined (Paul Shore/Paul Morantz) diamond turning machine, is today a world-leading facility capable of manufacturing large-scale micro-patterned optical master rolls. Since first commercial delivery in 2008, it has generated sales of £1.4 million with 21 customers, 14 having placed multiple orders. This manufacturing capability is unique in the world and offers UK companies the possibility to realise new products more cost-effectively through reel-to-reel processing. A spin-out to realise SSL's potential is under way.


Returning to Cranfield, building on previous EU-funded FP7 research, Professors Paul Shore and David Allen have developed a 6-axis compact automated micro-machine, the size of a domestic appliance, to deliver both diamond turning and milling in a single unit. Developed with mostly UK suppliers, the so-called Micro-Four has shown itself capable of turning Swatch brass to 3 nm Ra and form error of 100 nm RMS; comparable to much larger (up to 20 times the volume), more expensive machine tools. Spin-out company Loxham Precision was formed, with expressions of interest in machines from UK, Swiss and Dutch companies. A Technology Strategy Board part-funded project is seeing the Micro-Four machine become a UK product, optimised for automated production within a UK company.

Image: The Micro-Four - a 6-axis compact automated micro-machine, the size of a domestic appliance

Finally, previous generation Cranfield aspheric diamond turning technology has been improved via programmable thermal control. Now housed within the Cranfield Precision Engineering Institute, it supports both research and commercial activities. The thermal compensation system is being marketed by Loxham Precision, in partnership with another UK company.

There is more, but the direction is clear. UPS² was always intended to result in technology development and commercialisation; it has. The original £7.5 million has leveraged funding/income amounting to £33.5 million, with income continuing following the IKC project conclusion. The successor body, the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Ultra Precision (EPSRC Centre - details here), driven by University of Cambridge and Cranfield, while more concerned with fundamental science and engineering of precision surfaces – TRL1-3 - does focus on "next-generation ultra-precision production systems and products, with global outreach", together with building a related UK supply chain. It is funded for five years, starting October 2011, Professor Shore is principal investigator. An associated EPSRC Doctoral Training Centre in Ultra Precision is also part of this new programme. It is led by Professor Bill O'Neill at the University of Cambridge.

Several examples of UPS²'s work built on such more fundamental research, of course, while its work will form the basis of yet further development, indeed does in the EPSRC Centre. Steps to commercial realisation can be many and take years.

Pointedly, Cranfield's precision engineering credentials and know-how have their roots in the 1960s' Wilson government-inspired Cranfield Unit for Precision Engineering (CUPE), run in its early years by Professors John Loxham and Pat McKeown. Professor McKeown, present at the June event, highlighted this link, neatly underlining to government funding body personnel present the need for continued support for such research over the long term.

Extended article from here

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Knowledge transfer to industry

It was stressed that 75% of the 60-odd MSC students that supported UPS² were home students, with 75% of the students sponsored by UK companies. This is an unusually strong UK focus, with UK higher education equivalent figures being 34% for home student participation. A higher-than-average female student involvement is also claimed (23% versus mechanical engineer's 8.5%).

These individuals worked with 25 UK companies that included machine tool maker Cinetic Landis (see Machinery article here), measurement specialist Taylor Hobson, aerospace firm Airbus, and space technology expert Surrey Satellite. Many students, 26, have subsequently found employment in UK industry, at jet engine maker Rolls-Royce; metrology, medical and rapid manufacturing specialist Renishaw; and medical firm Johnson and Johnson Biomedical, for example.

Following this, there are now two MSc courses on offer: in Ultra Precision Technologies at Cranfield, with an HND entry route and, through the new Cambridge/Cranfield Doctoral Training Centre, an MRes in Ultra Precision. The IKC also put on knowledge transfer open days, run short course in Ultra Precision and produced a web-based distance learning package.

Developing individuals with the knowledge to support the application, design and production of structured surfaces is clearly key, if they are to be realised in commercial products.

First published in Machinery, August 2013