Funded by Innovate UK, the programme is part of a UK-Canada collaboration for R&D development projects, and follows a recent visit to Canada by the AMRC’s head of digital, Professor Rab Scott, as part of a High Value Manufacturing Catapult research mission to the country.

Led by Bristol-based tech start-up Additive Automations, SALSA also involves Renishaw Canada, the National Research Council Canada (NRCC) and the AMRC.

Ben Fisher, senior project engineer for AMRC’s Integrated Manufacturing Group (IMG), says that when a part is created using AM, it is often necessary to add support structures to build the piece successfully. About 95% of parts produced in the metal AM industry demand the time-consuming support removal process, which often involves the use of chisels and grinders, making process control very difficult.

SALSA will build on the transatlantic consortium’s wealth of AM and AI expertise to develop and test a small-scale prototype that automates support removal and transfer this to an operational prototype.

“Support removal is a necessity for metal AM,” explains Fisher. “The aim of this project is to reduce the time it takes to do that. Currently, the method is manual, very time consuming, and can be hazardous and toxic for workers. This project will develop a tool that can separate additive-layer supports using robotics and machine vision, releasing skilled technicians for higher value tasks.”

Metal AM offers enormous potential as a method for manufacture: it can be cheaper, takes less time and offers unlimited design freedom. A leading aircraft engine supplier has already produced more than 30,000 fuel nozzles using metal AM for its new engine, but the challenge is to enable small companies to access the same benefits.

To help ensure this outcome, the complexities, cost and risks associated with the technology need to be reduced, giving SME manufacturers the confidence that metal AM is ready for full-scale production, and capable of saving them time and money.

Post-processing can account for between 35 and 65% of part costs – a skilled technician can need several working days to remove the supports on a single component. Mistakes can also be costly – one instance reported was £17,000 on a single component – and in some cases removing the supports and finishing can be more expensive than the actual AM build process.

The SALSA project’s goal is to develop a tool that can remove all types of supports on all types of metal AM materials, and ensure process time and cost is at least half of that offered by current methods. Also, the process must not use or generate toxic substances.

A report by Robert Bush, company founder of the consortium’s lead partner Additive Automations, says a lab-scale proof-of-concept for automating support removal has already proved that time and cost reductions of up to 66% and 62% respectively are possible, with huge productivity gains estimated: 98% uptime, compared with 21% when removing supports manually.

The consortium will explore two streams of work: the design and build of an end effector for removing support material, being undertaken by Additive Automations; and an AI and machine vision system to detect the removable support material, which will be developed by IMG.

Fisher says: “We are deploying our expertise in collaborative robotics [cobots] for this project; we do a lot of complex integration work and have done a number of cobot projects. The work that IMG will be doing in this programme is the integration of the end effectors on to a cobot, such that an operator can teach the routines necessary for the robot to remove the material. It’s about making these systems talk to each other.

“For additive to become competitive as a manufacturing method, you need to remove or reduce the non-value added time, in this case the process for removing the support material,” he adds. “You need to have that support material to build the component, but there is a lot of post-processing time with AM parts, so it’s about shredding that time and automating the removal process.

“As AM is used in a huge range of applications – aerospace, automotive, energy, industrial, medical –it means the opportunities and potential impact of this project is massive. It has the power to lower the barriers to adoption.”

Bush says SALSA has the potential to be a major disruptor.

“The cobot market is worth $1 billion and growing at 50%, while AI in the manufacturing market is worth $1 billion and growing at 25%,” he states. “In comparison, metal AM is an industry worth $3 billion and growing at 80%, making it of the fastest growing areas in engineering.”

The benefits of AM read like an engineer’s wish list, and include the ability to produce unitised parts with complete design freedom, novel geometries and graded materials at both reduced cost (no tooling) and reduced waste (near net shape solution).

“Moreover, this can be achieved with a high-degree of customisation at the point-of-use, with leads times far less than current methods,” says Bush. “The UK has world-class AM machine manufacturing capability, a well-established national centre, and is among world leaders in research and innovation within high-performance applications such as aerospace and medical. However, the UK is seeing significantly slower adoption and use of AM than Germany, China, the USA and South Korea. UK manufacturing companies view it currently as having too many barriers to entry for full-scale production.”

SALSA intends to help make metal AM cost effective, not just in the thousands of parts, but into the tens of thousands.

“Since 1970, the UK’s manufacturing sector has had the most severe decline in output as a percentage of GDP,” says Bush. “In 2015, manufacturing output was 10% of GDP, down from 28% in 1970. To create wealth and build an economy, something needs to be created, and manufacturing is a wealth-generating industry. By adopting technologies that form part of the fourth industrial revolution, such as metal AM, machine learning and cobots, Britain will ensure a competitive, stable economy with sustainable innovation and jobs generation for decades to come.”