Bristol-based AVPE was among the first SMEs to receive support from NATEP to develop innovative technology. Years later, that work in understanding additive manufacturing (AM) continues to pay dividends.
A NATEP project is an “incredibly valuable” way of developing technology but equally – and almost more importantly – of building collaborative relationships.
That’s been the experience of AVPE, a Bristol-based SME and leader of Project Fusion, which ran from 2015–2017.
Those relationships “have certainly outlasted the strict definition of the project,” says Adam Lucas, Business Development and Marketing manager, and are a key factor in the “significant growth” AVPE expects this year.
Project Fusion was the £150,000 match-funded project, led by AVPE, which is now part of the Broadway Group, to develop Airbus-certified Class 2 components using additive manufacturing (AM) technology, with modified post-AM machining, non-destructive testing (NDT) and surface treatment processes.
AVPE’s core business was, and remains, precision machining, grinding and finishing, but in 2015 its management was keen to learn more about AM and how such a potentially disruptive technology might create opportunities for its business.
Opportunity or threat
The 70-strong company has always been a “service-driven” business supplying parts and spares for the aftermarket, said Lucas. “We’re always on the lookout for new technologies that would allow us to enhance our offering
“For us, Project Fusion was about understanding. Was Additive Manufacturing (AM) an opportunity or threat? What capability would it replace? How could we make the most of it, use it to our benefit to create a competitive advantage and remain at the forefront of our industry?”
Project Fusion helped AVPE and its collaborators – industrial partner South West Metal Finishing and end-users Airbus Innovations, Airbus Group, Renishaw plc and LIMA – scope out the capabilities and limitations of AM, one of which is achieving very fine tolerances and accuracy.
There are various challenges in taking an AM part from ‘close to final’ to ‘final’, ready for assembly: how to approach and carry out traditional machining; what to do after machining. “Those challenges were part of Project Fusion,” said Lucas.
The result was a tailored approach for machining AM parts, optimised to give maximum flexibility to design engineers while also focussing on speed – key to ensuring quick turnaround times and encouraging adoption of AM for aerospace spares. An important element was understanding how to use a 5-axis CNC machine as a Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM), which gives the capability of measuring a near-final part on the CNC machine to ensure the maximum accuracy of the finishing processes.
A whole different approach
Although the software existed before Project Fusion, this was the first time it had been used in aerospace manufacturing by AVPE, giving “a pathway” to a “whole different approach – from the customer saying ‘Here’s a requirement; what can you do?’ right to receiving the part, designing, validation, adjustment and producing parts that the customer can use.”
AVPE’s approach to the post-printing part of AM can be applied to complex machining of near-final parts from other processes too, including forging and casting. The knowledge from its NATEP project helped the company expand into industries including motorsport and automotive, oil and gas and other advanced technologies.
AM is moving quickly, Lucas says. The company “stays close” to developments in the technology and customers using it. This will contribute to the “significant growth” that AVPE expects this year through scaling up its capabilities to as much as triple the levels seen in 2020-21.
The understanding of AM gained through Project Fusion has helped make AVPE, now part of the Bristol-based Broadway Group, a valuable collaborative partner. Customers “will consult our technical team” at the design phase, says Lucas, “and will often refine how they make a part to take account of how the machining can be done.
NATEP’s “unique approach” of bringing parties together “brings a lot of value,” he said.
“Use of AM technology in aerospace is still at an early stage, but our close relationships with our original project partners – as well as new customers – mean we are involved with the latest developments and have an excellent opportunity to grow as adoption increases.”