University of Southampton

University of Southampton (3)

The installation of a new rapid prototyping facility at the University of Southampton is set to transform Engineering design and teaching activities and better equip students for employability in a changing world.

Rapid prototyping, or 3D printing, is regarded as the third industrial revolution in manufacturing. It has been widely accepted as a modern product design, which provides greater design freedom, faster design process, more efficient materials usage and tool-less manufacturing.

3D printing works by converting 3D CAD engineering drawings into solid objects from nylon powder using laser melting. The object is built, layer by layer, with each layer the thickness of a human hair. It allows designers and engineers to create complex and lightweight parts rapidly.

Researchers in Engineering and the Environment at the University of Southampton have embraced the techniques and have already produced a number of world firsts, including the first 3D printed plane and the first fully rapid prototyped air vehicle, the ASTRA (Atmospheric Science through Robotic Aircraft) Atom, to enable low cost observations of the physical parameters of the atmosphere.

The installation of the new £300k state-of-the-art facility, which includes access to expert design staff, a powder-based 3D Systems ZPrinter Z650 machine, a plastic photopolymer-based ZBuilder Ultra along with associated consumables (both supplied by Emco Education Ltd), and two BFB3000 rapid prototyping colour printers housed in a newly refurbished lab, is funded by Engineering and the Environment at the University and Southampton’s Student Centredness Fund. The facility will significantly enhance undergraduate engineering degree programmes at all levels and will also further link to wider education and outreach activities across the University.

Using this new facility, students will able to use their theoretical and practical knowledge to create designs, have them printed off within a few hours and walk out of the lab physically holding what they have designed.

Professor Simon Cox, Associate Dean, Enterprise in the University’s Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, comments: “The ability to take designs from a CAD workstation to fully functional prototypes is truly inspirational and exciting for students across all of our engineering disciplines and brings together the excellence and passion of University staff to create a distinctive Southampton engineering experience.”

Andy Ure, second year MEng Aeronautics and Astronautics student, says:

“Having access to the world-class 3D printing facilities has allowed me to develop my design skills in a way that was not possible before. Instead of having my final designs simply shown on a screen, the new printer makes it possible for me to bring them to life. Furthermore, having this opportunity has helped me better understand a quickly developing field that will become essential in the future industrial environment.”

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Engineering scientists at the University of Southampton are developing the world’s first fully rapid prototyped air vehicle this week, to help develop new technologies that probe the Earth's atmosphere using an unmanned platform.

The vehicle is part of the ASTRA (Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft) project, and it aims to demonstrate how a low-cost, bespoke high altitude platform could be developed and manufactured over a period of mere days and used to send a payload with atmospheric monitoring equipment into the upper atmosphere.

The entire structure of the balloon-borne pod – dubbed the ASTRA Atom -- has been printed, and the on-board data logging equipment has been built using Microsoft's rapid electronic prototyping toolkit .NET Gadgeteer. The Atom was printed on the University’s 3Dprinter, which fabricates plastic objects, building up the item layer by layer.

The aircraft is protected by two foam ‘orbits’, manufactured using a computer-controlled hot wire cutter at the University’s Engineering Design and Manufacturing Centre, which are designed to break on landing and absorb the energy of the impact.

Dr András Sóbester, University of Southampton Lecturer and a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow, says: “The rapid prototyping of bespoke platforms like the ASTRA Atom enables scientists to deliver a variety of instruments far into the stratosphere after a very short design and manufacture cycle. This may be required for testing purposes, as part of an iterative development process or there may be a sudden need to make observations of phenomena such as volcano eruptions or nuclear fallout. In such cases, rapid prototyping translates into fast response and timely measurements that could not be obtained in other ways.”

Dr Steven Johnston, from the University of Southampton’s Microsoft Institute of High Performance Computing, adds: “The challenges of developing such systems are varied as the aircraft has to be able to operate in the harsh, low pressure, low density environment of the upper stratosphere, as well as in the dense and turbulent lower troposphere. Additionally, weight and power requirements of all on-board systems have to be minimised. The need to keep weight and cost to a minimum, while providing bespoke architectures demands novel manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing, too.

“Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, developing such platforms would normally take months. Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the ‘pod’ can be made with no extra cost.”

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Engineers at the University of Southampton have designed and flown the world’s first ‘printed’ aircraft, which could revolutionise the economics of aircraft design.

The SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) plane is an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) whose entire structure has been printed, including wings, integral control surfaces and access hatches. It was printed on an EOS EOSINT P730 nylon laser sintering machine, which fabricates plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer.

No fasteners were used and all equipment was attached using ‘snap fit’ techniques so that the entire aircraft can be put together without tools in minutes.

The electric-powered aircraft, with a 2-metres wingspan, has a top speed of nearly 100 miles per hour, but when in cruise mode is almost silent. The aircraft is also equipped with a miniature autopilot developed by Dr Matt Bennett, one of the members of the team.

Laser sintering allows the designer to create shapes and structures that would normally involve costly traditional manufacturing techniques. This technology allows a highly-tailored aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days. Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, this would normally take months. Furthermore, because no tooling is required for manufacture, radical changes to the shape and scale of the aircraft can be made with no extra cost.

This project has been led by Professors Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University’s Computational Engineering and Design Research group.

Professor Scanlon says: “The flexibility of the laser sintering process allows the design team to re-visit historical techniques and ideas that would have been prohibitively expensive using conventional manufacturing. One of these ideas involves the use of a Geodetic structure. This type of structure was initially developed by Barnes Wallis and famously used on the Vickers Wellington bomber which first flew in 1936. This form of structure is very stiff and lightweight, but very complex. If it was manufactured conventionally it would require a large number of individually tailored parts that would have to be bonded or fastened at great expense.”

Professor Keane adds: “Another design benefit that laser sintering provides is the use of an elliptical wing planform. Aerodynamicists have, for decades, known that elliptical wings offer drag benefits. The Spitfire wing was recognised as an extremely efficient design but it was notoriously difficult and expensive to manufacture. Again laser sintering removes the manufacturing constraint associated with shape complexity and in the SULSA aircraft there is no cost penalty in using an elliptical shape.”

SULSA is part of the EPSRC-funded DECODE project, which is employing the use of leading edge manufacturing techniques, such as laser sintering, to demonstrate their use in the design of UAVs.

The University of Southampton has been at the forefront of UAV development since the early 1990s, when work began on the Autosub programme at its waterfront campus at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. A battery powered submarine travelled under sea ice in more than 300 voyages to map the North Sea, and assess herring stocks.

Now, the University is launching a groundbreaking course which enables students to take a Master's Degree in unmanned autonomous vehicle (UAV) design.

This is the first scheme of its kind and from September 2011, postgraduates can take part in a one-year programme covering the design, manufacture and operation of robotic vehicles. The degree will cover marine, land based and pilotless aircraft, typically used in environments that are deemed unsafe or uneconomic, such as exploration under sea ice, or monitoring gas emissions from volcanic eruptions. NASA expects UAVs to become 'standard tools' in fields such as agriculture, earth observation and climate monitoring.

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