I-Form: The shape of manufacturing processes to come
New research centre aims to help Irish manufacturers maximise available technology
I-Form is working with Irish company Croom Precision Medical to test a highly advanced new process-monitoring and control technology for production-scale 3D printing. Photograph: Wladimir Bulgar/Getty Images/Science Photo Library
Manufacturing processes are undergoing a transformation every bit as profound as the original industry revolution. Data science, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and other technologies are combining to usher in an era where mass production is superseded by mass individualisation.
This will present challenges to manufacturers of all sizes across every sector. The new I-Form Advanced Manufacturing SFI Research Centre has been established to help Irish-based manufacturers meet these challenges.
I-Form’s mission is to shape the future of manufacturing through high-impact research into the application of digital technologies to materials processing. The research centre brings together key expertise in materials science, engineering, data analytics and cognitive computing to improve the understanding of complex materials processing and to develop user-friendly process control systems for the manufacturing industry.
“Manufacturing processes that shape, form or convert materials use some of the most complex technologies around,” says centre director Prof Denis Dowling. “Many of these processes remain somewhat of a black art, with a heavy reliance on trial-and-error and inspection of the finished product to determine if the quality is acceptable for the customer. I-Form is applying developments in digital technologies to materials processing, to improve understanding, modelling and control, thus increasing the competitiveness of Irish manufacturing on the world stage.”
Funded by Science Foundation Ireland and industry to the tune of €22 million, the centre involves partnerships with seven research institutions and 31 companies located around the country. Additional funding of €1.7 million from the EU has also been secured, while the centre is already engaged in a number of potentially groundbreaking projects with industry partners.
One of these sees I-Form working with Irish company Croom Precision Medical to become the first external beta tester for a highly advanced new process-monitoring and control technology for production-scale 3D printing.
The metallic additive supplier Renishaw has developed technology to monitor the printing process. “The laser heats up the metallic powder, generating emissions from its surface,” Dowling explains. “The technology looks at the light emissions from that to monitor the process. It’s a new way of doing it. Croom has established a strong relationship with Renishaw and this is how the project came about.”
The project has the potential to place Ireland at the forefront of additive manufacturing, which is rapidly growing in importance around the world. “The technology can evaluate the process and, by analysing the data, predict how well the product will print,” he adds. “If a problem is defined the process can be stopped or modified.”
This is leading to a trend toward individualisation in manufacturing. “Products will be made for what the consumer wants. In medical devices, bone implants can be made as an exact match for the patient. Companies like Stryker in Cork are already using 3D printing for the manufacture of knee joints and spinal supports. Spinal supports are very difficult to machine, and additive manufacturing can create a surface texture specifically designed to allow bone cells adhere to it.”
Additive manufacturing has already moved on towards mass manufacture, Dowling points out. “GE Aviation recently announced the production of its 30,000th 3D-printed fuel nozzle tip for the Leap aircraft engine. By using additive manufacturing, the number of parts in a single fuel nozzle tip was reduced from about 20 pieces to one whole piece, and weight was cut by about 25 per cent.”
The digitisation of manufacturing is another area of interest for the centre. “We are working with some major IT companies such as IBM and Intel in the digital space,” says Dowling. “We are working with them on its Watson artificial intelligence technology.”
Using Watson, it will be possible to provide insights to manufacturers which might not otherwise be available. “In the US, people are already calling customer service lines and speaking to Watson. It can understand their queries and speak to them. In many cases it can solve their problems and where it can’t it will hand on the call to someone who can. In manufacturing, it can gain a deep understanding of processes, bring information together, and make sense of it in ways that an engineer can understand. It can understand, advise and help the engineer to look at the options open to them.”
“We have 24 researchers at the centre now and what they all have in common is exposure to materials and digital technology,” Dowling concludes. “That’s absolutely crucial for the future for Ireland. We are breaking down the barriers between the different disciplines. During the initial six-year lifetime of the centre more than 80 researchers will come through with the mix of digital and materials skills required by industry in the future.”