Automation in materials preparation and manufacture

Materials World magazine
5 Jan 2016

Khai Trung Le speaks to Lee Cobb, Managing Director of Struers, manufacturer of metallographic surface preparation equipment, on the UK’s future in automation in preparation and manufacturing.

Can you tell me about your background?

I have a PhD from the University of Leeds, and worked closely with Professor Derek Fray at the time. This was mostly focused on electrochemistry and the use of sensors in areas such as hydrogen and aluminium. I joined Struers in 1998 to help with their materials preparation and accounts in the north of England, and was appointed Managing Director in 2004. The company was based in Glasgow when I first started, moved back to our original premises in the Midlands in 2006 and, in 2010, moved to our current site in the Advanced Manufacturing Park, Sheffield. The driving forces behind Struers is innovation and the introduction of new products, and that is why I’ve stayed for so long - it sounds clichéd and corny but we see different challenges every day, which is where the interest is.

What do you expect for the future of automation in UK manufacturing?

The current trend is essentially, whether we like it or not, more deskilling in the workforce. We see there is a gradual decline in metallurgists being turned out at universities. When I was going through the university system, we had metallurgy courses in numerous universities around the UK. That’s now shrunk down to one or two, which is a crying shame. Where else do you get these guys? We are still seeing materials scientists emerge with degrees in the workforce but, of course, where Rolls-Royce might have a department with several metallurgists and trained metallographers, that’s few and far between. Nowadays, metallurgists are very sought after, able to move in to commanding positions within aerospace and automotive industries.

The current trend for students seems to be occupations like marketing. But the industry still needs metallurgists. Although deskilling is good from Struers’ perspective because the sample preparation requirements remain the same – we just have to make sure our machines are capable of doing these things automatically – these industries are still screaming out for more qualified people, and we try to actively encourage people to move in this direction. The wider industry needs to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that we still need people to look at a structure with the skillset needed to read it and understand the science.

Has the technology around automation changed in recent years?

Around 20-odd years ago, tests had to be done and if the guy in the lab doing the metallography wasn’t available, everybody else would get a different result based on what colour socks they were wearing! Is that conducive to reading structures properly? What Struers is trying to do is to vanish the black art of metallography. It’s a good thing that we can provide reproducibility through firm foundations in methodology. The general industry no longer has as many qualified metallurgists to facilitate materials preparation, and we’ve had to produce machines that allow any user to select ‘method A’ and press go.

The phase of machines replacing men is something we’ve already gone through. What we tend to see now are the secondary and tertiary suppliers getting on board. For example, automotive manufacturers are often being asked to do their testing in-house. So you need to produce metallographic reports on the suitability of fasteners for BMW, and that’s where you start to see talk of consistency with their available staff. There are the high-volume guys who use automation because it gives them the capacity, and the lower-volume guys who look at automation because they have been asked to self-certify on the quality of components, don’t have the skillset in-house, and need to ensure they can do it.

What Struers tries to do is give them systems with flexibility and modularity – WeldingExpert is a system by which you could read a polished specimen and make weld measurements and analysis, and we are just about to announce StructureExpert, effectively a box you place your polished specimen on top of, and it will give you a grain size within minutes without you going through microscopy and grain structure measurement.

Are there any industries that are not using automation to their advantage, or are not suitable to do so?

Every industry in materials preparation is potentially a user of automation, but you might want to think carefully about where you use it and where you don’t. If you’re getting into high-end R&D – engineered steels, for example – I think there is still a requirement for intervention from the user. You can provide methods for any material and some level of automation to deal with that, but when you’re talking about investigating novel materials then, of course, that’s a high academic field and still requires a high skillset. However, there are no real barriers to automating preparation on any industrial site in the UK. If people want consistency, automation is the way to provide that.

1. National Instruments, based in the UK, has released the IC-3173 Industrial Controller, one of a family of controllers released to meet the requirements of advanced Internet of Things applications. The IC-3173 includes a 2.20 GHz Intel Core i7 dual-core processor, 8GB DDR3 RAM and 4GB memory in a solid-state design, and is designed to pair with EtherCAT motion drives and USB3 Vision cameras among other automation devices.

2. A new range of variable-speed drives has been released at Schneider Electric Ltd, based in London, UK, with two models revealed at the SPS IPC Drives exhibition in Germany. The Altivar 320 and 340 are designed to operate in harsh environments and will support open-loop motor control with torque sensitive operation at low speeds, and closed-loop motor control for applications requiring precision positioning. The 320 is currently available, while the high-performance 340 will be released in mid-2016.

3. ABB Robotics has announced IRB 8700, the largest robot the company has made. Features include a reach of 3.5m with payloads up to 1,000kg, increased reliability and lower maintenance costs through simplified design and parts configuration – using only one motor and gear in each axis, against the traditional two – and claims of as much as 25% faster speeds compared with other robots in its size class.

Next month's Spotlight is on injection moulding