Nuclear AMRC offers bulk additive manufacturing

Funded by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the bulk additive manufacturing cell at the University of Sheffield's Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) is a £1million installation built by Kuka Robotics. The cell is said to build high-integrity near-net shape parts from the ground up, and add metal features to large forgings such as pressure vessels, like a heavy-duty version of a 3D printer.

The 10 x 5m cell features a six-axis Kuka robot arm, mounted on a three-axis 9m gantry, plus a two-axis manipulator with 3.5m diameter turntable. The robot carries a 'toptig' welding system, which integrates the wire feed into the welding torch, and has been developed by Air Liquide specifically for robotic welding applications.

The robot will work from a CAD model to lay down weld material to create three-dimensional geometries. As well as creating near-net shape parts, the cell can also add non-critical structural features to large pump and valve casings or pressure vessels, reducing the initial size and complexity of expensive forgings or castings.

"We're looking at the whole system of additive manufacturing with this cell – both the technical process development and the business side," says Udi Woy, Nuclear AMRC technology lead for additive manufacturing. "Manufacturers aren't so concerned about developing the process; they just want to build something that meets customer requirements in a more cost-effective way."

The robot is claimed to be able to carry a selection of end effectors, allowing the Nuclear AMRC team to investigate a range of arc and power beam welding technologies using metal powder and wire. The flexibility of the cell is also said to allow the technology to be introduced into established factories.

"One of the limiting factors of additive manufacturing is how disruptive it is when you introduce it into a stable production line," Woy says. "If you can buy tools that fit into your production line and use whatever systems you have available, that reduces entry costs and allows manufacturers to expand their capabilities."