A pioneering manufacturing process that can turn
titanium, stainless steel and many other metals into
a new breed of engineering components could have
a big impact across industry.
Unlike conventional solid-metal components, the
new parts have a tiny lattice-like structure, similar
to scaffolding but with poles twice the diameter
of a human hair, making them ultra-light. Because
loads are channelled along the poles, the parts can
comprise up to 70% air while remaining strong enough
to perform correctly.
The components could replace solid metal in integrated
circuits, automotive applications and many other
fields of engineering. Aircraft parts, for example,
could be produced that are over 50% lighter than
conventional alternatives. The reduction in aircraft
weight would cut fuel requirements, bringing down
the cost of air travel and reducing the emissions
produced by the combustion of aviation fuels that
are a major contributor to climate change.
The world's first commercial-scale system for the
rapid manufacture of these new-generation metal components
is now being developed by engineers at the University
of Liverpool, in collaboration with MCP (Mining and
Chemical Products) Ltd and funded by the Engineering
and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Harnessing a technique known as selective laser
melting (SLM), this fully automated system builds
up components, layer by layer, from fine metal powders
using an infra-red laser beam to melt the powders
into the required structure. Layers can be as thin
as 25 microns, making it possible to produce complex
parts in which thermal, impact-absorption and many
other properties can be distributed in specific places
to meet the requirements of particular applications.
This is not possible with conventionally manufactured ‘solid'
For instance, the system can manufacture components
designed for use wherever heat is generated and needs
to be removed quickly. Such parts might include the
heat sinks that cool the processor chips in personal
computers. The lattice in these heat sinks can be
designed to facilitate heat flow and deliver increased
cooling rates, resulting in improved chip reliability
and fewer PC crashes.
Although other ways of making some types of latticed
metals exist, they do not enable the features of
the lattice to be precisely ‘designed in' to meet
customised requirements. The metals they produce
are also limited in their usefulness because they
have to be machined into the final required shape,
rather than ‘built for purpose' step by step. A typical
example is the manufacture of composite components
used in motor sport.
The new system's versatility means it could manufacture
better-performing components of this type, as well
as products for the healthcare and chemicals sectors.
For instance, it is possible to imagine miniaturised
chemical reactors being built using SLM and replacing
large chemical plants at some point in the future,
with substantial benefits in terms of production,
flexibility and safety.
The project is building on previous EPSRC-funded
work carried out over the last six years by the University
of Liverpool team, which is led by Dr Chris Sutcliffe.
Dr Sutcliffe says: “There is worldwide interest in
developing a standard rapid manufacturing process
based on SLM. Our system will produce optimised engineering
components that can't be made in any other way and
will give the industry that has supported us a significant
advantage in future markets.”
The new manufacturing system, which represents a
highly innovative approach to the production of metal
components, is due to be in full commercial use next
year. The team is already working on a larger version
which should be ready for commissioning in around
The three-year project ‘Rapid Manufacture of Industrially
Relevant Hierarchical Structures' is receiving total
EPSRC funding of nearly £450,000, plus £200,000
from industrial partners Osprey Metals Ltd, Stryker
Orthopaedics and MCP (Mining & Chemical Products)
The University of Liverpool has been undertaking
innovative, world-leading research in the development
and production of micro-latticed metals since 1999.
It was the first university in the UK to install
An integrated circuit is a complex, miniaturised
electronic circuit etched onto a tiny silicon semiconductor
(or ‘chip'). Integrated circuits play a key role
in electronic equipment such as computers and calculators.
A laser ( L ight A mplification by S timulated E
mission of R adiation) is a device that harnesses
atoms to emit coherent beams of light.
Currently, composite components used in motor sport
are usually machined from a block of metal foam,
covered with a carbon fibre cloth impregnated with
resin and cured in an oven. With the new process,
the metal foam material would be ‘grown' on the SLM
machine to the exact form of the required component,
cutting out the costly machining step. The new process
also offers many design options by which the components
could be given the ability to ‘transform', changing
their dimensions to suit the particular conditions
which prevail at the time.
A micron is a millionth of a metre.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
(EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research
in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC
invests more than £500 million a year in research
and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle
the next generation of technological change. The
areas covered range from information technology to
structural engineering, and mathematics to materials
science. This research forms the basis for future
economic development in the UK and improvements for
everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also
actively promotes public awareness of science and
engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research
Councils with responsibility for other areas of research.
The Research Councils work collectively on issues
of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website
address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/
For more information, contact:
Dr Chris Sutcliffe, Department of Engineering, University
of Liverpool, Tel: 0151 794 4316, Mobile: 0151 794
7729, E-mail: email@example.com
Natasha Richardson, EPSRC Press Office, Tel: 01793
444404, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org