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Updated: 28 min 26 sec ago

AI Masters courses get industry and government backing

8 hours 46 min ago

Industry and government have come together for a major new programme that will see 16 universities hosting specialised AI Masters courses to boost the nascent sector.

(Credit: Pixabay)

Backed by up to £110m of government funding, the package will give 1,000 students the opportunity to enhance their skills with new PhDs at the dedicated UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) AI Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), located around the country. Up to 200 new AI Masters places at UK universities will be also be funded by companies such as Google’s Deepmind, QuantumBlack, Cisco and BAE Systems. In addition, the programme will support up to five AI research Fellowships, created in collaboration with The Alan Turing Institute.

“This AI skills and talent investment will help nurture leading UK and international talent to ensure we retain our world-beating reputation in research and development,” said business secretary Greg Clark. “Artificial intelligence has great potential to drive up productivity and enhance every industry throughout our economy, from more effective disease diagnosis to building smart homes.”

AI is becoming an increasingly familiar tool in almost every sector and has been targeted by the UK government as one of its ‘Grand Challenges’. The schemes, aimed at people of different stages in higher education and available to researchers at a variety of levels, will aim to build AI skills for the next generation of scientists, engineers and programmers.

“Artificial intelligence is a disruptive technology in a range of sectors, enabling new products and services and transforming data science,” said Professor Sir Mark Walport, UKRI chief executive. “It allows us to develop new approaches to challenges as diverse as early disease diagnosis and climate change.

“To maintain its leadership in AI, the UK will need a new generation of researchers, business leaders and entrepreneurs equipped with new skills. Working with partners across academia and industry, the centres announced today will provide the foundations for these future leaders.”

The UKRI CDTs will be located at the Universities of Exeter, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bath, Swansea, Southampton, Glasgow, Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, UCL, QMUL, Imperial and Kings College London. Each CDT will focus on a different area, such as healthcare, environment, nanoelectronics and ethics.

Professor Gavin Shaddick leader of the Exeter CDT that will specialise in Environmental AI, commented: “Developing a clear understanding of the challenges and identifying potential solutions, both for ourselves and our planet, requires high quality, accessible, timely and reliable data to support informed decision making. Environmental Intelligence is the use of AI to extract meaningful insights from the vast amount of environmental data that is available, from many different sources and from all over the world.”

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UK homes unfit for climate change challenges, warns report

9 hours 6 min ago

The Committee on Climate Change says government must act to improve homes to safeguard comfort, health and well-being in future and ensure the UK meets its environmental targets.

The UK will not meet its legally binding climate change targets unless emissions of greenhouse gases from UK buildings are almost completely eliminated, and in its report “UK housing: fit for the future?” the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warns that emission reduction from the UK’s 29 million homes has stalled, while energy use – which accounts for 14% of total emissions – increased between 2016 and 2017. The report sets out five priority areas where the committee believes that government action may help.

New houses must be adequately prepared for climate change, including insulation and low-carbon heating sources

While technology exists to create high-quality, low-carbon and resilient homes, the report states, current policies and standards are not driving the scale and pace of change needed to ensure that homes are effective refugees from the damaging effects that climate change is predicted to cause, such as extreme temperatures, unpredictable weather and increased risk of flooding.

The CCC is an independent, statutory body established under the 2008 Climate Change Act. Comprised of experts in climate science, economics, behavioural science and business, it is chaired by former environment secretary Lord Deben and is sponsored by the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Northern Ireland executive, Scottish Government and Welsh Government. Its remit includes advice both on reducing emissions and thus transitioning to a low-carbon future, and on improving resilience to climate change, where it also advises other countries.

The report identifies several issues that have led to the slackening of pace in improving the climate change performance of housing stock. Home insulation installations have stalled, it says; policies such as the “zero carbon homes” scheme have been weakened or withdrawn; policies to encourage flood protection and improve water efficiency are too weak; building standards are inadequate; and local authorities are not addressing the issue.

The five areas where government could help include inspection and enforcement of building standards to ensure that new homes and retrofitting of environmental improvements to existing homes meet design standards; a national training programme to close the skills gap in housing design, construction and installation of new technologies; Treasury support for retrofitting to existing homes measures and equipment such as heat pumps and heat networks, insulation, improved shading and ventilation, indoor moisture reduction, improved air quality and water efficiency and where necessary, flood protection; enforcement of environmental specifications and new homes, including low-carbon heating, increased use of timber frames and no connection to the gas grid for new homes from 2025 at the latest; addressing of funding gaps for low carbon heating sources beyond 2021 and better resources for building control departments in local authorities. Measures such as preferential mortgage rates for owners of energy efficient and low-carbon homes and “Green loans” to cover the cost of sustainability improvements should be considered, it adds.

“This report confirms what we have long-suspected: UK homes are largely unprepared for climate change,” said Baroness Brown, who chairs the CCC’s Adaptation Committee and was previously a senior engineer at Rolls-Royce, principal of the engineering faculty at Imperial College London and Vice-Chancellor of Aston University. “The Government now has an opportunity to act. There must be compliance with stated building designs and standards. We need housing with low-carbon sources of heating. And we must finally grasp the challenge of improving our poor levels of home energy efficiency. As the climate continues to change, our homes are becoming increasingly uncomfortable and unsafe.” Work has scarcely begun on improving homes, she added, and issues of finance, funding and training are particularly key to making UK homes climate-ready.

Lord Deben, a former environment secretary, added: “Simply put, there is no way in which the UK can meet the legally-binding climate change targets that Parliament has determined unless we take the measures outlined in this report.”

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February 1958: The construction of the Guérinière water tower

10 hours 19 min ago
The Guérinière water tower was built in the wake of the Second World War by the brutalist architect Guillaume Gillet. Jason Ford recalls how The Engineer reported on both its functionality and its aesthetics

Three quarters of Caen was destroyed during the latter stages of the Second World War, and a feature of its reconstruction is arguably as brutal as the bombardment that flattened the  Normandy city. Resembling a giant shuttlecock at rest in a concrete ring, the water tower at Caen-La Guérinière counts renowned brutalist architect Guillaume Gillet as one of its designers, and is one of a long list of buildings that were built for the same utility whilst combining aesthetics as well as functionality.

In fact, the water tower was built to accommodate subsidiary functions such as a sub-post office, shops, and several offices, in addition to providing a high and low-pressure system that would operate during periods of drought.

Our correspondent reported that 2,200 dwellings were being built by local authorities in the southern suburb of La Guérinière to accommodate approximately 10,000 people. Construction by private companies was also taking place, and the increase in demand for water created difficulties in supplying higher parts of the town on the right bank of the Orne river.

The Engineer noted that drops in water pressure were severe during periods of drought, when the normal supply of 12,000 cubic metres per day decreased to approximately a third of that.

“Accordingly, it was decided to construct a water tower which would allow the available supplies to be apportioned between the high and low-pressure zones according to any desired schedule,” our correspondent wrote, “and supply the high-level zone at an increased head, while the low-level zone would also receive water from the tower but with a lesser head.”

The total weight of the building – including water – amounted to approximately 5,000 tonnes, and ground pressure at the central footing was estimated at 10kg/cm2.

The comparatively large size of the reservoir was accounted for by the fact that its water was destined for the two supply zones. From the rising main, incoming water reached a weir fitted with a splitting plate to divide the flow between the two systems.

The high-pressure flow, according to The Engineer, went into the reservoir, from where it was withdrawn by a 500mm diameter downpipe. The low-pressure flow entered the central pipe, along with any overspill water. Since the water level in the central pipe varied between “30m and 49m sea level”, the water – if allowed to cascade into this pipe – would entrain air, which could disrupt the distribution system.

Guérinière water tower

“To obviate this, the inlet was arranged to give a spiral inflow, so that the water descends in a helical path at an angle of one in five, being held to the pipe wall by centrifugal action,” our correspondent said. “In this way, very little air is entrapped and any such air can rise and escape up the centre of the vortex.  The reservoir is prevented from overflowing, in case of serious unbalance between inflow and withdrawal, by a shut-off disc valve equipped with a float and arranged so as to give a gradual closure and avoid water hammer.”

As well as function, this publication paid attention to the tower’s construction, describing the reservoir more formally as “an inverted circular truncated cone”,  which was designed to rest on 16 equally spaced columns rising from the centre foundation in the direction of the generating lines of the cone.

Horizontal extensions of these columns at first-floor level stabilised the tower vertically, supporting the conical roof under which the market was to be installed.

“In turn, the beams rest on an elliptical ring of columns,” The Engineer wrote. “A platform, cantilevered from the columns, carries a single-storey structure which is intended to house a number of offices of the municipality, a sub-post office and similar facilities.

“The building thus fulfils three functions, of which the two subsidiary ones have been ingeniously harmonised with the principal objective.”

Readers’ concerns about stability were allayed with remarks on the building’s construction. For example, the horizontal extensions of the supporting columns were observed as being joined flexibly to the outer ring of columns on which they rested.

“Another series of flexible joints is provided at the base of the outer columns,” noted our correspondent. “The weight of the cantilevered portion of these columns, together with that of the superimposed offices, balances the outward force on the main columns together with the effect of wind pressure.

“Buckling of the very slender main columns is resisted by stiffener rings, the upper two of which are placed along the inner edges of the columns while the middle ring extends across the whole column width.”

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Robotic biosensor test helps diagnose fertility in real-time

10 hours 36 min ago

A new type of biosensor combined with a robotic testing system has been used to diagnose fertility issues in a clinical setting away from the lab.   

(Credit: Pixabay)

Known as RAPTER (Robotic APTamer-enabled Electrochemical Reader), the platform was developed by researchers at Imperial College London and The University of Hong Kong. It uses a novel biosensor to measure the rise and fall – or pulsatility – of luteinizing hormone (LH), something that can indicate different states of reproductive health in women.

It is not currently feasible to measure LH pulse patterns in a clinical setting as doctors need to take a blood sample from patients every 10 minutes for at least eight hours. RAPTER combines the new biosensor with a 96-well robotic testing system that is connected to a laptop, allowing this painstaking cycle of fertility testing to be automated. The system is described in Nature Communications.

“Reproductive health issues are common amongst women in the UK and around the world,” said Professor Waljit Dhillo, NIHR Research Professor in Endocrinology and Metabolism at Imperial College London, and one of the lead authors of the study.

(Credit: Imperial College London/Nature Communications)

“Diagnosis of some of these conditions can be lengthy resulting in delays to treatment. Reproductive health issues can also impact on women’s mental and physical wellbeing. There is a clear need for new and better ways to diagnose these conditions more quickly. Our technology will be able to give clinicians a faster and more accurate diagnosis of hormone pulsatility that affects reproductive health, which could lead to better and more targeted treatments for women.”

The study took place between 2015 and 2019 at Hammersmith Hospital. It measured LH pulse patterns from 441 blood samples of women who either had normal fertility function, were menopausal, or had hypothalamic amenorrhea, a condition where a woman’s period stops.

The RAPTER platform was able to detect changes in LH pulse patterns in patients with reproductive disorders. It was also able to distinguish between different patient cohorts for the first time using this new technology. For example, women with menopause have high LH levels compared to fertile women with normal LH levels, or women with hypothalamic amenorrhoea who have low LH levels. Unlike current methods, the test is low-cost and can provide results instantly, according to the researchers. The next phase of development will aim to streamline the technology to the point where it is comparable to a glucose monitoring device.

“We have developed technology that is able to measure LH pulsatility in patients more quickly and cheaply than current methods,” said Professor Tony Cass, a senior author of the study from the Chemistry Department at Imperial College London. “We will now work towards making the technology more accessible for the clinic by reducing the size of the device, which could revolutionise the clinical care of patients with reproductive or other disorders.”

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Next-generation bionic hand restores sense of touch

10 hours 57 min ago

A next-generation bionic hand could restore the sense of touch to amputees by replicating the feeling of proprioception – the brain’s capacity to sense the position of limbs.

Next-generation bionic hand (© Luca Rossini)

The new device, developed by researchers from EPFL, the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa and the A. Gemelli University Polyclinic in Rome, is said to allow patients to reach out for an object on a table and ascertain its consistency, shape, position and size without looking at it.

According EPFL, the prosthesis stimulates nerves in the amputee’s stump, which can then provide sensory feedback to the patients in real time.

The findings are published in Science Robotics and are the result of ten years of research coordinated by Silvestro Micera, a professor of bioengineering at EPFL and the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, plus Paolo Maria Rossini, director of neuroscience at the A. Gemelli University Polyclinic in Rome.

Current myoelectric prosthesics allow amputees to regain voluntary motor control of their artificial limb by exploiting residual muscle function in the forearm, but the lack of sensory feedback means that patients rely heavily on visual cues. This can prevent them from feeling that their artificial limb is part of their body and make it more unnatural to use.

“Our study shows that sensory substitution based on intraneural stimulation can deliver both position feedback and tactile feedback simultaneously and in real time,” said Micera. “The brain has no problem combining this information, and patients can process both types in real time with excellent results.”

Intraneural stimulation re-establishes the flow of external information using electric pulses sent by electrodes inserted directly into the amputee’s stump. Patients then have to undergo training to gradually learn how to translate those pulses into proprioceptive and tactile sensations.

This technique enabled two amputees to regain high proprioceptive acuity, with results said to be comparable to those obtained in healthy subjects. The simultaneous delivery of position information and tactile feedback allowed the two amputees to determine the size and shape of four objects with 75.5 per cent accuracy.

“These results show that amputees can effectively process tactile and position information received simultaneously via intraneural stimulation,” said Edoardo D’Anna, EPFL researcher and lead author of the study.

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EEF changes name to Make UK and warns of “catastrophic” Brexit

Wed, 20/02/2019 - 12:23

Leading UK engineer Dame Judith Hackitt has warned that leaving the EU with no deal would be catastrophic for the manufacturing sector and could kill off some sectors of industry overnight.

Dame Hackitt, who is chair of Make UK (formerly known as EEF) was speaking at Make UK’s annual dinner. “I am saddened by the way that some of our politicians have put selfish political ideology ahead of the national interest and people’s livelihoods and left us facing the catastrophic prospect of leaving the EU next month with no deal,” she told the audience.

“Let me be clear for the press and for those hard brexiteers who accuse us of scaremongering. This is very real and very serious. The ninth largest manufacturing economy in the world needs to be assured that our contribution to UK prosperity is recognised and valued.”

Hackitt’s comments follow the publication of a Make UK survey which found that 49 per cent of UK manufacturers believe that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ would make the UK unattractive as a manufacturing location. Just 28 per cent said it would be more attractive.

The survey, which was carried out between 28 January and 5 February and based on responses from 429 companies also found that just nine per cent of companies say they have won business previously sourced overseas since the referendum, highlighting the fact leaving the EU does not appear to be improving prospects for companies.

Other findings show that since the since the referendum in 2016 a number of companies have offshored production. Of those who have done so, almost two thirds (61 per cent) have switched production elsewhere in the EU. Just one fifth of companies (19 per cent) have switched production back to the UK.

Furthermore, of those who have adjusted supply chains a third (35 per cent) have offshored with the EU being the most common destination. A quarter (26 per cent) have reshored production back to the UK, the vast majority of which has come back from the EU.

The survey also shows that adjusting their supply chain has been a costly exercise for companies with over half (51 per cent) saying it has increased their costs with just 10 per cent saying this has reduced their costs. The financial impact of preparing for Brexit is also evident in the fact around half of companies have taken action to stockpile goods or, are considering doing so, with over half (56 per cent) of those who have started stockpiling experiencing some financial difficulty in doing so.

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Fast and affordable field test could help fight against malaria

Wed, 20/02/2019 - 12:09

Folded sheets of waxed paper could help bring fast, affordable, and reliable field tests for diseases such as malaria to remote parts of the developing world.

New platform allows for accurate and affordable field tests (Pic: Glasgow University)

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from universities in Scotland and China, working with the Ugandan Ministry of Health, describe how their folded paper, prepared with a printer and a hot plate, has helped detect malaria with 98 per cent sensitivity in infected participants from two primary schools in Uganda.

Malaria affects over 219 million people in 90 countries and in 2017 the disease killed 435,000 people. Arresting and reversing the spread of the disease requires diagnosis in people who are infected but who do not display any symptoms. This problem can only be addressed by widespread field tests but current assessments, , which rely on PCR (polymerase chain reaction), can only be carried out under lab conditions.

Led by researchers from Glasgow University, the team developed a new approach to diagnostics that uses paper to prepare patient samples for a different type of detection process known as LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification), which is more portable and better-suited for field use.

The new platform is said to use a commercially-available printer to coat the paper in patterns made from water-resistant wax, which is then melted on a hotplate, bonding the wax to the paper.

A blood sample taken from a patient via fingerprick is placed on in a channel in the wax, then the paper is folded, directing the sample into a narrow channel and then three small chambers which the LAMP machine uses to test the samples’ DNA for evidence of Plasmodium falciparum, the mosquito-borne parasitic species which causes malaria. The test can be completed on-site in less than 50 minutes.

Lead author Prof Jonathan Cooper of Glasgow University’s School of Engineering said: “We tested our approach with volunteers from two primary schools in the Mayuge and Apac districts in Uganda. We took samples from 67 schoolchildren…and ran diagnostic tests in the field using optical microscopy techniques, the gold standard method in these low-resource settings, a commercial rapid diagnostic procedure known as a lateral flow test and our LAMP approach. We also carried out PCR back in Glasgow, on samples collected in the field.

“Our diagnostic approach correctly diagnosed malaria in 98 per cent of the infected samples we tested, markedly more sensitive than both the microscopy and lateral flow tests, which delivered 86 per cent and 83 per cent respectively.

“It’s a very encouraging result which suggests that our paper-based LAMP diagnostics could help deliver better, faster, more effective testing for malaria infections in areas which are currently underserved by available diagnostic techniques.”

The team’s paper, titled ‘Paper-based Microfluidics for Diagnosing Malaria in Low Resource Rural Environments’, is published in PNAS. The research was supported by funding from the UK Global Challenges Research Fund, the Scottish Funding Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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Engineers propose cut-price satellite navigation alternative to Galileo

Wed, 20/02/2019 - 11:27

“Augmentation system” is claimed to be only three per cent of the cost of replicating Galileo as an independent UK facility

Despite being involved since its inception the UK pulled out of the European Union’s Galileo satellite navigation project in November 2018 over concerns that it would not be able to access secure aspects of the system following departure from the EU.

Prime minister Theresa May promised that it would develop its own alternative, but with the original project costing over £9bn, there have been persistent concerns over the cost of such project. Sussex University’s Prof Chris Chatwin and Dr Lasisi Lawal Salami, from Nigeria’s Obasanjo Space Center, have now proposed an alternative which they claim would cost around £300m yet would still meet the UK’s navigational needs in defence, aviation, maritime and location-based services for emergencies and crisis management. Moreover, they add, it would be five times more accurate than Galileo, with a resolution of 5cm.

The UK pulled out of the Galileo project last November over security concerns post-Brexit. Image: ESA

In a paper in the Journal of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Chatwin and Lasisi suggest a Satellite-based Augmentation System (SBAS) as a Navigational Overlay Service (NOS) on a hosted national satellite. This would take advantage of the UK’s continuing access to Galileo’s basic signal after Brexit, as Galileo is designed to be open-source; this signal is less accurate than the secure military signal from which it would be excluded.

“Our system can use the GPS or Galileo free signal or both and augments it to give it a more accurate signal that is comparable to the encrypted military signal,” explained Chatwin  “The augmentation system has extremely accurate clocks so it provides an additional signal to the GPS signal and reduces the ambiguity of the location determination.”

The Surrey plan would see the UK launching three geosynchronous satellites to provide global coverage for the augmentation system in all regions apart from the extreme poles. It will also require an on-board augmentation system as a hoisted payload on a national satellite and commentary ground infrastructure in the UK.

“If we use augmentation we can greatly reduce costs from £7bn to £300m, but we still depend on the US or the EU for their free signal. In the end this is a decision about sovereignty. If we still believe that we are an independent military power, then we’d have to find considerable resources to build our own GNSS system. We could call it Newton,” Chatwin said.

The total price of this project would be only about three times the amount the UK has already set aside for feasibility study into developing its own independent satellite navigation system to replicate Galileo. Chatwin and Lasisi also believe that in collaborating with a spacefaring nation such as Nigeria, the UK would signal that is committed to opening up new research and industrial relationships beyond the EU; it could enter into a cooperative agreement to provide access to the NOS with a specific service coverage area, they suggest.

Nigeria launched its first comunications satellite, NigComSat 1R, in 2007. Image:NASRDA

Dr Lasisi, Vice Convenor of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union and a former PhD student at Sussex University, said: “A partnership with Nigeria would have the additional benefit of signalling to the rest of the world that the UK has become a more outward looking economy after Brexit and opens up the opportunity for further scientific collaboration with the rest of the world beyond the EU.”

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Recycled tyre fibres boost concrete fire resistance

Wed, 20/02/2019 - 09:40

Sheffield University researchers have demonstrated a new way of protecting concrete from fire damage using materials recycled from old tyres.

Image: Pixabay

The team used fibres extracted from the textile reinforcement commonly embedded into tyres Adding these fibres to the concrete mix was shown to reduce the concrete’s tendency to spall – where surface layers of concrete break off – explosively under the intense heat from a fire.

The fibres melt under the intense heat from a fire, leaving networks of tiny channels. This means that moisture trapped within the concrete is able to escape, rather than becoming trapped, which causes the concrete to break out explosively.

“Because the fibres are so small, they don’t affect the strength or the stiffness of the concrete,” said lead author of a paper on the research in the journal Fire Technology Dr Shan-Shan Huang. “Their only job is to melt when heat becomes intense. Concrete is a brittle material, so will break out relatively easily without having these fibres help reducing the pressure within the concrete.”

Protecting the concrete from fire spalling means that steel reinforcements running through the concrete are also protected. When the steel reinforcements are exposed to extreme heat they weaken very quickly, meaning a structure is much more likely to collapse. The Liverpool Waterfront Car Park suffered this kind of damage during a fire in 2017, leading to the entire structure eventually having to be demolished.

The group also collaborated with Sheffield firm Twincon to develop a method for reclaiming the fibres from the used tyres. This involved separating the fibres from the tyre rubber, untangling the fibres into strands, and then distributing them evenly into the concrete mixture.

Using man-made polypropylene (PP) fibres to protect concrete structures from damage or collapse if a fire breaks out is a relatively well-known technique but the Sheffield study is the first to show that these fibres do not have to be made from raw materials, but can instead be reclaimed from used tyres.

“We’ve shown that these recycled fibres do an equivalent job to ‘virgin’ PP fibres which require lots of energy and resources to produce,” explained Dr Huang. “Using waste materials in this way is less expensive, and better for the planet.”

The team now plans to continue testing the material with different ratios of the fibres to concrete, and different types of concrete. It also plans to find out more about how the materials react to heat at the microstructure level by scanning the concrete as it is heated.

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IMechE student drone challenge returns to Snowdonia

Tue, 19/02/2019 - 14:34

This year’s IMechE UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Challenge will once again be held in North Wales, as the event returns to the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre at Llanbedr.

Teams gathering at Snowdonia Aerospace Centre for UAS Challenge 2017 (Credit: IMechE)

Now in its fifth year, the student competition aims to develop young engineering talent in the rapidly evolving sector of drones and UAS. Each annual Challenge cycle kicks-off in October, ending with a final event in June the following year. This year’s final will take place from June 16-18 and will feature a record 32 teams comprising hundreds of young engineers from as far afield as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Canada, along with first-timers from Denmark and the Netherlands.

“We are delighted the Welsh Government has taken this opportunity to support the competition,” said Dr Colin Brown, IMechE chief executive. “The Challenge brings leading-edge drone technology to north Wales, which will raise the area’s aerospace profile internationally and help develop the regional skills base.”

Istanbul Technical University wins IMechE drone challenge

The 2018 event saw several international teams take part alongside UK universities, with Team Hedef from Istanbul Technical University taking the overall crown. Students were tasked with designing and building a drone for a humanitarian aid mission. Southampton University’s Team Athena was named the runner-up, and third place was awarded to Team Hawk from the Huddersfield University. According to Ken Skates, the Welsh Assembly’s Minister for Economy and Transport, the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre is the ideal home for the competition.

“This is an exciting sector with a growing presence in an ever-changing world, and such high-profile events are a fantastic opportunity to showcase the world class test and evaluation facilities we have here in Wales,” said Skates.

“Snowdonia Enterprise Zone’s Llanbedr site is a prime example of that, offering the perfect environment for the further development of unmanned systems and emerging technologies, and I look forward to us welcoming university teams there from across the world in June.”

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Sepsis biosensor delivers diagnosis in under three minutes

Tue, 19/02/2019 - 11:29

A new biosensor for the rapid diagnosis of sepsis could transform treatment of the disease and potentially save millions of lives around the world.

(Credit: Strathclyde University)

Developed by scientists at Strathclyde University, the device uses a microelectrode to detect interleukin-6 (IL-6) in patients’ blood. IL-6 is a protein biomarker that can indicate the presence of sepsis, which occurs when chemicals released by the immune system cause inflammation throughout the body.

The device takes a pinprick of blood which is then put on the chip for the result to be read. Its needle shape means it can also be implanted and used on patients in intensive care for constant monitoring. While current testing for the disease can take up to 72 hours, the new device can deliver a bedside diagnosis in around two and a half minutes.

“The research shows that the tools we’ve developed could underpin a rapid test for sepsis,” said Dr Damion Corrigan, from Strathclyde’s department of Biomedical Engineering. “We’ve developed a needle shaped sensor with different electrodes and have shown we can detect one sepsis biomarker in almost real time, at the clinically relevant levels.

“When levels go up, as they do in sepsis, we can detect that too. Sepsis is quite complex and difficult to diagnose but IL-6 is one of the best markers.”

According to the UK Sepsis Trust, around 52,000 people in the UK die every year and six million globally from the condition. However, early diagnosis and the correct treatment lead to most people making a full recovery. Current methods for detection rely on simple measurements such as body temperature, heart rate and breathing rate, with blood tests to confirm diagnosis requiring testing in a central laboratory that can take days. Reducing this time to minutes and providing near-instant diagnosis could not only save lives, it could also significantly diminish some of the associated effects that disease has on the body.

“With sepsis, the timing is key,” said Dr Corrigan. “For every hour that you delay the antibiotic treatment, the likelihood of death increases.

“It’s not just saving lives, a lot of people who survive sepsis suffer life changing effects, including limb loss, kidney failure and post-traumatic stress disorder. The test could stop a lot of suffering.”

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This week’s poll: what action should follow Honda’s closure of its Swindon plant?

Tue, 19/02/2019 - 11:12

With the Japanese carmaker joining companies announcing job losses in the UK or relocation, what action should be taken by government?

Take Our Poll (function(d,c,j){if(!d.getElementById(j)){var pd=d.createElement(c),s;pd.id=j;pd.src='https://www.theengineer.co.uk/content/plugins/polldaddy/js/polldaddy-shortcode.js';s=d.getElementsByTagName(c)[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(pd,s);} else if(typeof jQuery !=='undefined')jQuery(d.body).trigger('pd-script-load');}(document,'script','pd-polldaddy-loader')); The Civic Type R is one of the models currently made at Swindon. Image: Honda

Honda’s announcement has been greeted with sadness but lack of surprise, as we report in our news section today. And despite comments from local members of Parliament and, indeed, from Honda itself denying that the UK’s departure from the European Union is the major factor behind the closure decision, many commentators this morning are linking the current situation with industry reducing its involvement in the UK with Brexit. It cannot be denied that the recent closure of a free trade deal between the EU and Japan will make it easier for Honda to move all production back to its home country and export to Europe.

This is a highly significant development for the UK automotive sector and manufacturing in this country in general, so we have made it the subject of this week’s poll.

Government actions were key to Honda deciding to base European production in the UK in the 1980s, so it seems fair to ask what action should be taken in response to its reversal of that decision. Should this concentrate the minds of UK politicians and trade negotiators to redouble their efforts to conclude a favourable free trade deal with the EU following Brexit and lay to rest fears of a “no deal” departure? Would it be better to concentrate efforts on ensuring that we have good free-trade deals with other important manufacturing markets around the world (which, under EU rules, cannot be signed before we have left the EU, but diplomacy and strategic planning can still begin). Does this add further weight to the arguments in favour of a further vote on the UK’s departure from the EU, perhaps showing that Leave advocates’ assurances that overseas manufacturers would not depart the UK if it were outside the EU were mistaken? Should we take at face value the claims that Brexit has nothing to do with this decision and base action on that?

We welcome discussion on this matter, but ask all readers to familiarise themselves with our guidelines on the content of comments before submitting, and remind commenters that their submissions will be moderated before publication. We will publish the results of this poll on this page on February 26, 2019.

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Promoted content: Collaborate with Birmingham City University to improve R&D capability

Tue, 19/02/2019 - 10:40

Birmingham City University is the University for Birmingham. If you’re a business or organisation in Birmingham, the Midlands or further afield (nationally, or internationally), and looking to implement a new product, service or idea, we’d love to hear from you to see if we can establish an impactful, long-lasting research collaboration.

IT engineer works with augmented reality software in data center. He wirelessly interacts with rack servers

As a practice-based University, we create a wealth of knowledge, research and expertise that has real world business or societal impact.

Our Business Development Managers can meet with you to discuss your idea and based on your requirements, build a project delivery team made up of University experts and specialists who are best suited to work with you and your research project.

“We can help businesses and organisations of all shapes and sizes advance research in their chosen field. Join us to develop and pilot new innovations alongside transferring knowledge and skills into your organisation.” – Heike Schuster James, Senior Development Manager, Birmingham City University

“Our research collaborations with Birmingham City University and its knowledge base have really helped Central England Co-Operative grow as a business” – John Armstrong, Head of Information Technology at Central England Co-Operative.

We invite you to collaborate with us…

Birmingham City University is particularly interested in driving research and development within digital technology and environmental sustainability. Examples of existing research that you could collaborate with us in are:

Augmented Reality (AR)

  • Implementing AR within your business may be more accessible than you think, and our research knowledge could help you with this.

Big Data

  • Could big data and machine learning help you gain the competitive advantage you’re seeking? A collaboration could see you better harnessing the power of data.

Smart Cities

  • We’re at the forefront of Birmingham’s ground-breaking Smart City research, developing the intelligence needed to help local authorities, SMEs, larger businesses and organisations make smarter business and strategic decisions for the City. Discover how our Smart City activity could benefit you.

Advanced Manufacturing

  • We are changing the perceptions of Magnesium. Find out why you should be considering Magnesium for your product development.

We’d love to hear from you, to find out more and initiate a research collaboration with Birmingham City University, visit www.bcu.ac.uk/collaborate 

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Honda to close Swindon car plant in 2021

Tue, 19/02/2019 - 10:16

Japanese car maker Honda has confirmed plans to close its Swindon car plant in 2021.

A UK built Honda Civic leaves the Swindon production line. Image: Honda

The plant which currently produces the Civic Hatchback and Civic Type R, manufacturers around 150,000 cars per year, and employs 3,500 people.

Established in 1985, it is Honda’s only EU based manufacturing facility.

In an official statement the firm’s Chief Officer for European Regional Operations, Katsushi Inoue said that the decision was driven by the firm’s desire to accelerate its electrification strategy and to refocus activity in regions where it expects to have high production volumes. The firm’s Turkey factory will also close as all European market production is consolidated to Japan where the company is based.

Talking to the BBC, the firm’s senior vice-president for Europe Ian Howells, who has previously warned of the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, denied that the UK’s impending exit from the EU was a factor. Back in September Howells had said that despite Brexit uncertainty Honda was committed to the future of the Swindon plant.

Meanwhile Swindon MPs Justin Tomlinson and Robert Buckland issued a joint statement expressing surprise and disappointment at the news and pledging to work with Honda, the government and the trade unions to support the workforce.

The pair added that the consolidation has been made easier by the new EU-Japan trade deal which will allow Honda to produce their cars in Japan and import them into the EU without paying tariffs.

Many Japanese firms were originally attracted to the UK by its tariff free access to European markets. However the auto industry trade body SMMT estimates that the reintroduction of tariffs will add up to £1.8bn a year to export costs on cars alone.

The announced closure follows last month’s decision by Nissan not to build its X-Trail at the plant’s Sunderland facility.

The Unite union described the latest news as a “shattering body blow” for UK manufacturing and blamed Brexit uncertainty for the decision. “The car industry in the UK over the last two decades has been the jewel in the crown for the manufacturing sector – and now it has been brought low by the chaotic Brexit uncertainty created by the rigid approach adopted by prime minister Theresa May” said Unite’s national officer for the automotive sector Des Quinn.

MORE AUTOMOTIVE NEWS HERE

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Race to save the Great Barrier Reef

Mon, 18/02/2019 - 12:34

Engineering a rescue for the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s iconic natural wonders. Stuart Nathan reports

Coral is a symbiotic organism, with microscopic algae living within the animal’s tissues and helping it to feed

The Great Barrier Reef is unquestionably a wonder of the world. The largest coral system on Earth, it consists of more than 2,900 individual reefs and stretches over 2,300km (1,400 miles). Famously visible from space, it represents one of the most biodiverse known habitats and is of huge importance to the Australian economy, both because of tourism and because it supports fisheries. Moreover, the reef is of huge cultural significance for many Pacific communities. And it is in trouble.

The biggest threat to the reef is coral bleaching. This is caused by rising sea temperatures, and as a result of the complex nature of coral. Within the tissues of the millions of living creatures that comprise coral are microscopic, plant-like organisms called zooxanthellae, which capture sunlight, convert it to energy, and provide nutrients to the coral.

However, if sea temperatures rise, the coral expels the zooxanthellae and loses its colour. This doesn’t kill the coral straight away, but bleached coral is effectively starving and, if conditions do not return to those hospitable to zooxanthellae, it will die. Researchers in Australia are now trying to find ways to help corals in the Great Barrier Reef resist higher temperatures without bleaching, which they hope will preserve this unique environment.

Although it’s a world away from the factories, medicines and synthetic materials that characterise engineering in much of the world, this effort is nonetheless engineering of an important kind.

Coral bleaching is a natural event, and research indicates that bleaching has occurred many times during the reef’s existence. But extreme heat waves in 2016 and 2017 affected up to two thirds of the reef, and current extreme temperatures are likely to have similar consequences. However, other reefs can withstand conditions in warmer waters: the Red Sea is consistently warmer than the seas around the Great Barrier Reef, for example.

Dutch researcher Madeleine van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences in Townsville, Queensland, visited London last year to talk about her work in engineering hardier coral. Van Oppen’s work focuses on two techniques: assisted gene flow and assisted evolution. The first of these works by moving warmth-adapted corals to cooler parts of the reef; the northern extreme of the reef is routinely 1°C to 2°C warmer than the southern portion in summer. Corals are mobile in their larval form but, under normal conditions, larvae from the north do not travel south because the main ocean current that flows across the Pacific splits off the coast of northern Queensland, and flows are not favourable to north-south transfer. The researchers are experimenting with manually moving some of the northern corals south. If enough corals were moved, it could help heat-damaged reefs recover faster.

Assisted evolution is a somewhat more complex technique, which van Oppen described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 and in Nature Ecology and Evolution in 2017. “It’s artificial selection on steroids,” she said. Targeting both the coral host and its symbiotic zooxanthellae, it takes several different tacks to improving their resistance to stress, in this case from heat.

One way to do this is by a technique called stress conditioning. This involves exposing coral to heat levels that approach those that will cause bleaching, and to investigate, firstly, whether the coral can adapt to this and, secondly, whether it can pass those adaptations to further generations. Evidence for this exists in some plants and animals, but it is not yet known whether coral can be stress-conditioned. Van Oppen and her colleagues are looking at this technique in the National Sea Simulator (SeaSim), a marine research aquarium in Townsville, which can store more than 3.5 million litres of seawater and can carry out spawning experiments on many reef organisms simultaneously and over several generations.

Queensland’s National Sea Simulator (SeaSim) is growing hybrid coral strains

Another approach is more typical to genetic engineering, involving creating hybrids by bringing together compatible eggs and sperm from different coral species. This is known to occur naturally in some types of coral, increasing genetic diversity and producing novel genetic combinations that may be useful in selective breeding. “It’s quite rare in nature, but not difficult to do under laboratory conditions,” van Oppen said. Working at SeaSim, the researchers are looking to hybridise multiple pairs of coral species during their annual spawning (a major and predictable event) and grow their young under controlled conditions to select for climate resilience, then crossbreeding strains to produce desired results exactly the same way that conventional husbandry has worked for many centuries in agriculture. Hardy specimens could then be transferred to the reef itself.

Yet another approach is one that is sometimes used in humans to give health benefits: probiotics. These are live organisms, generally bacteria, which can confer beneficial effects if they establish colonies inside their hosts. Coral contains several potential habitats where probiotic colonies could be established, including the layer of mucus that coats its surface, digestive systems and even its mineral skeletons. Van Oppen and colleagues, including Katarina Damjanovic, are trying to develop probiotics that could either help coral tolerate the heat better, or help it recover faster from bleaching events by creating a more hospitable environment for the essential zooxanthellae. “One thing that probiotics could do is mop up oxygen radicals that occur in water and are damaging to the living coral tissue,” van Oppen said. “One big advantage of this approach is that we could administer the probiotic anywhere on the reef.”

Van Oppen is open about the potential for these techniques. “Our big hope is that it can buy us enough time to tackle the warming without the reef dying in the meantime. She also admits that, even if the technique was successful, it would change the Great Barrier Reef significantly. “At the moment we have a very diverse reef, with many different coral species,” she said. “We are not going to be able to create successful strategies for all of those species, so even if successful, we will have a much less diverse reef. We simply don’t know what the consequences of that for other life might be.

“If the reef rejects the results of our experiments, the effort will be wasted.” However, she adds: “The risk of doing nothing is just far too great.”

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Engineered “meta-material” reflects light and sound in tailored directions

Mon, 18/02/2019 - 11:45

Manipulating the surface structure of the material at the atomic level allows the direction and shape of reflected waves to be tailored for optical and acoustic applications

The nature and behaviour of waves is one of the most complex subjects in physics. Whether they are pressure fluctuations within a material, such as sound waves, or electromagnetic phenomena such as light and its associated radiation spectrum, the study of these phenomena, which are crucial to the nature of matter itself, has occupied some of the most brilliant scientific minds in history and continues to befuddle laymen and students. Meta-materials, recently discovered structures which  do not interact with waves in the same way as conventional matter, have been used to bend light in such a way that they can render objects invisible and manipulate sound to produce acoustic illusions.

The actual printed ABS acoustic metasurface. Image: Aalto University

Meta-materials work because of their surfaces, which generally feature patterns with repeating or “periodic” structures smaller than the length of the wave with which they are designed to interact. The discovery by nano engineers and electronic engineers at Aalto University in Helsinki allows surfaces to be designed that will reflect waves in any direction or even split the reflection so that waves travel from the surface in different directions. It can also change the shape of the wave, and may have applications in disciplines such as optical computing and acoustic engineering.

In a paper in Science Advances, postdoctoral researcher Ana Diaz-Rubio of Aalto’s Department of Electronics and Nano-engineering, along with collaborators from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, explained how they designed “metasurfaces” using mathematical techniques to model the structures that would affect incident waves. “Existing solutions for controlling reflection of waves have low efficiency or difficult implementation,” said Diaz-Rubio. “We solved both of those problems. Not only did we figure out a way to design high efficient metasurfaces, we can also adapt the design for different functionalities. These metasurfaces are a versatile platform for arbitrary control of reflection.”

Schematic representation of the functionality implemented with the metasurface. Image: Aalto University

The team used finite element analysis, a technique for controlling the properties of materials which is commonly used in engineering, to design the structure of their metasurfaces. The FEA tool employed is in fact a commercially available package, COMSOL Multiphysics. They then translated their mathematical calculations into reality using fused deposition 3D printing of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic with a density of 1180kg/m³, testing the technique using acoustic waves and analysing their reflection.

One key aspect of the work was to eliminate parasitic reflections, a phenomenon that reduces the efficiency of the surface in redirecting wave energy. In their paper, the team reports that they were successful in this and that they will manage to redirect and split the acoustic wave in the direction of their choice.

“This is really an exciting result. We have figured out a way to design such a device and we test it for controlling sound waves. Moreover, this idea can be applied to electromagnetic fields,” Diaz-Rubio said.

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Untethered electrode sheds light on therapeutic uses of neural stimulation

Mon, 18/02/2019 - 11:39

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have developed a method of neural stimulation that uses an untethered electrode activated by light, an advance that could mitigate damage done by implanted devices.

A laser shining onto an untethered, ultrasmall carbon fiber electrode to stimulate neurons via the photoelectric effect (Pic: J. Mater. Chem. B, 2015,3, 4965-4978 – Reproduced by permission of RSC)

Neural stimulation can provide therapeutic effects in neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, but implanted devices deteriorate over time and can cause scarring in neural tissue.

“Typically with neural stimulation, in order to maintain the connection between mind and machine, there is a transcutaneous cable from the implanted electrode inside of the brain to a controller outside of the body,” said Takashi Kozai, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the university’s Swanson School of Engineering. “Movement of the brain or this tether leads to inflammation, scarring, and other negative side effects. We hope to reduce some of the damage by replacing this large cable with long wavelength light and an ultra small, untethered electrode.”

The photoelectric effect occurs when a photon hits an object and causes a local change in the electrical potential. Based on Einstein’s 1905 publication on this effect, Kozai’s group – the Bionic Lab – expected to see electrical photocurrents at high-energy ultraviolet wavelengths.

“When the photoelectric effect contaminated our electrophysiological recording while imaging with a near-infrared laser [low energy photons], we were a little surprised,” said Kozai. “It turned out that the original equation had to be modified in order to explain this outcome. We tried numerous strategies to eliminate this photoelectric artefact but were unsuccessful in each attempt, so we turned the ‘bug’ into a ‘feature.'”

“Our group decided to use this feature of the photoelectric effect to our advantage in neural stimulation,” said Kaylene Stocking, a senior bioengineering and computer engineering student. “We used the change in electrical potential with a near-infrared laser to activate an untethered electrode in the brain.”

The lab created a carbon fibre implant 7-8 microns in diameter, or roughly the size of a neuron. Stocking, first author of the paper detailing the research, simulated their method on a phantom brain using a two-photon microscope. She measured the properties and analysed the effects to see if the electrical potential from the photoelectric effect stimulated the cells in a similar way to traditional neural stimulation.

“We discovered that photostimulation is effective,” said Stocking. “Temperature increases were not significant, which lowers the chance of heat damage, and activated cells were closer to the electrode than in electrical stimulation under similar conditions, which indicates increased spatial precision.”

“What we didn’t expect to see was that this photoelectric method of stimulation allows us to stimulate a different and more discrete population of neurons than could be achieved with electrical stimulation.” said Kozai, “This gives researchers another tool in their toolbox to explore neural circuits in the nervous system.

“We’ve had numerous critics who did not have faith in the mathematical modifications that were made to Einstein’s original photoelectric equation, but we believed in the approach and even filed a patent application“, said Kozai. “This is a testament to Kaylene’s hard work and diligence to take a theory and turn it into a well-controlled validation of the technology.”

Kozai’s group is currently looking further into other opportunities to advance this technology, including reaching deeper tissue and wireless drug delivery.

The team’s research is detailed in a paper titled: Intracortical neural stimulation with untethered, ultra small carbon fiber electrodes mediated by the photoelectric effect. The work was done in collaboration with Alberto Vasquez, research associate professor of radiology and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

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RemoveDEBRIS consortium captures space junk with harpoon

Mon, 18/02/2019 - 10:46

An international consortium led by the Surrey Space Centre has deployed the harpoon on its test satellite to capture space debris in orbit.

RemoveDEBRIS is a small satellite mission to test four technologies integral to removing space junk. Designed by Airbus UK in Stevenage, the harpoon is the third experiment to be successfully trialled, following tests of a debris-catching net as well as a LiDAR and camera-based vision navigation system. In the latest test, a metal target panel was suspended from a 1.5m boom deployed from the main satellite and the harpoon was fired at 20m per second to penetrate the simulated debris.

“This is RemoveDEBRIS’ most demanding experiment and the fact that it was a success is testament to all involved,” said Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre at the University of Surrey.

“The RemoveDEBRIS project provides strong evidence of what can be achieved with the power of collaboration – pooling together the experience across industry and the research field to achieve something truly remarkable.”

Alongside Surrey Space Centre and Airbus UK, the project also involves Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), France’s ArianeGroup, Switzerland’s CSEM, Dutch firm Innovative Solutions in Space, French and German divisions of Airbus and South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. The 100kg satellite was launched to the ISS onboard a SpaceX Dragon resupply mission on April 2 2018, then deployed from the space station on June 20 that year. Its final experiment in March 2019 will see RemoveDEBRIS deploy a drag sail that will pull it into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up, a technique that could be used in future to de-orbit large pieces of space debris or inactive satellites.

“Space debris can have serious consequences for our communications systems if it smashes into satellites,” said universities and science minister Chris Skidmore. “This inspiring project shows that UK experts are coming up with answers for this potential problem using a harpoon, a tool people have used throughout history.”

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£18m funding for OneWeb global broadband satellite constellation

Mon, 18/02/2019 - 10:40

The UK Space Agency has awarded £18m of European Space Agency (ESA) funding to OneWeb, a satellite startup that plans to use hundreds of satellites to provide broadband connectivity to every corner of the globe.

Artist’s impression of OneWeb satellite constellation. Credit: Airbus.

The company, which was founded in the US but is now registered in the UK, expects to employ up to 200 staff at it’s offices in White City, London. Working in partnership with Airbus it has already set up assembly lines in France and the US.

According to a statement from the UK Space Agency, the investment will see the group focus on technologies for the next generation of satellite payloads, ground connections and space debris removal. It will also support novel automation techniques and artificial intelligence to manage the proposed constellation of spacecraft and its interaction with terrestrial networks to realise global 5G connectivity.

OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel said: “We are excited about the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to develop novel automation techniques that could help manage our constellation in future and ensure we do so safely and responsibly so that we can protect space for future generations.

The ESA funding is part of the agency’s ongoing SUNRISE project, which is exploring the use of satellites for broadband internet. “Sunrise is a prominent endeavour falling under our Satellite for 5G Initiative,” said Magali Vaissiere, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications.

The first batch of 10 satellites of the OneWeb constellation are due to be launched on February 26, 2019 on an Arianespace Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

The UK is a world leader in telecommunications satellites. Last month EUTELSAT QUANTUM, the first satellite capable of being completely reprogrammed after launch left the UK for final assembly and testing in France. And in November last year, Eutelsat and Airbus signed a new contract worth hundreds of millions of pounds that will see components and parts for two further communications satellites assembled in the UK. This means that six out of seven of the company’s next satellites will be partially built in Britain.

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Promoted content: Bringing AM into the mainstream

Mon, 18/02/2019 - 08:38

North Star Imaging explains how Advanced qualification and testing methods are helping to accelerate the development and deployment of Additive Manufacturing processes and Products.

Additive Manufacturing (AM) has rapidly expanded into nearly all industries with projections of growth continuing in the double digits for the next decade.  AM carries with it the ability to expand product performance, reduce design to product cycle times, and drive down total product cost.  AM methods and technology continue to advance in both capabilities and quality while providing more material options in metals and polymers as well as many hybrid materials.  With AM, Yesterday’s Impossible is truly Today’s Opportunity.

Figure 4: CT is now used to retrieve internal and external metrology data of AM products for product acceptance

One common denominator across all areas of AM is the need for qualification of the AM process and product.  The performance of some AM products can be critical in sustaining human life as well as assuring the function and protection of equipment valued at millions of dollars.  Flight Critical metal AM products are rapidly replacing products manufactured with conventional manufacturing processes such as castings, forgings and weldments.  Cast medical implants are being replaced with metal and polymer-based AM products with characteristics that make them superior in their biological attachment within the body while employing materials optimal for biocompatibility.  Numerous other industries have successfully begun to employ the use of AM in their manufacturing of performance critical products.

With any relatively new or changing process their can sometimes be a painful learning curve as we gain the knowledge of the controlling process variables and their optimisation for manufacturing productivity and quality.  AM is not exempt from these growing pains however there are technologies that have dramatically help accelerate the development process.

Shifting of Technologies for Evaluation of Product Integrity

When we pick up an AM product, visual and other surface evaluation methods provide some general assessment as to whether we have a quality product, but what lies under that surface is often what is most critical.

Typical Non-Destructive Testing methods used for casting inspection may not be appropriate for some of the AM processes and alternate methods will need to be employed.

Ultrasonic Testing (UT) can sometimes be used in evaluating a products internal integrity, yet many AM product geometries, surface conditions and grain structures do not lend themselves to the UT process.

Digital Radiography (DR) and Film Radiography have been found to be successful in the evaluation of some AM metal products, however simply do not have the image quality to adequately identify some of the common AM discontinuities in other parts.

For most critical metal AM products, Computed Tomography (CT) has become the go-to technology for evaluating parts for internal integrity.  Figure 1 compares DR and CT images of a metal AM product displaying the level of clarity that CT provides for detecting small discontinuities.

Figure 1Validation of Product Integrity

Any method used to evaluate product for internal integrity, should be qualified and validated for a specific product.

A common method of qualifying a CT technique and validating product integrity and is by creating multiple Reference Quality Indicator (RQI) parts. When possible these RQI’s are printed with intentionally generated discontinuities and anomalies representing what could potentially occur within the specific AM process.

The RQI is typically made from either an actual product, a section of a product or closely represents a given product.  A minimum of 2 RQI’s are typically created and CT scanned.  One of the RQI’s in then cross-sectioned typically in multiple areas to confirm the type and size of the features correlate with the CT scan data.  Any additional discontinuities or anomalies Identified in either the CT scan or the Cross-sections are cross validated.  This process helps understand and define the limitation parameters for detectability using CT.  The remaining RQI should then be used to continually monitor the performance of the CT scan process over time.

Growing Advancements of In-Situ Monitoring

Significant advancements have been made in the area of in-situ monitoring of AM during the printing cycle. Many metal Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) systems are equipped with one or multiple types of in-situ sensors monitoring each fusion layer of the melt pool for variation or anomalies that may contribute to a non-optimal condition within the product.  Extensive work is being done to be capable of spatially plotting this data in a three-dimensional format tied to the geometry of the product.  This data may be very useful, but only when it can first be correlated to a specific outcome within the product such as an actual discontinuity.  This correlation can be valuable in predicting the product quality during the build process.

Initially, the painstakingly slow and incomplete process of cross-sectioning a product was the primary way of providing this type of correlation.  For many AM products, CT has now become the method of choice in validating the In-situ process and making the above correlations.   The layer by layer data collected from the in-situ detectors can be used to generate a 3D data set of information that can be spatially correlated to the 3D CT scan and any associated product anomalies.  This provides a powerful method of assessing what type of discontinuity a specific in-situ monitored event produced within the product and its precise location.  This new combined approach can help provide a higher level of confidence in the in-situ monitoring. The ideal is that the in-situ monitoring process would consistently identify any event within the build that will cause an unacceptable condition and then either stop the print or correct the condition and continue.

This could drastically reduce the amount of scrap or reworked product that is identified later with CT inspection and for some products may be able to reduce inspection to a sample or eliminate CT inspection requirements.  Any reduction in inspection should be addressed cautiously when relying on only in-situ monitoring technologies as they also have their own tolerances of measurement and detection. The need for further improvement is still evident by the simple observation that even when some in-situ monitoring predicts no rejectable discontinuities, some parts are still found to contain defects detected by CT scans, see Figure 2.

Figure 2

Some critical products will always require 100% inspection using CT, however the more we can learn from the combination of CT and in situ monitoring, the more likely a case can be made for a consideration of process and product CT sampling.

Considerations in the use of Mechanical Property Test Coupons:

Another method of monitoring the effectiveness and quality of a PBF AM build is through using destructive testing of coupons to assess the products mechanical properties. However, even when shear, compression and fatigue sample coupons are printed at the same time on the same build set as a part or parts, product geometries and wall thicknesses often vary significantly from the coupons.  This approach therefore does not always produce a valid representation of the material properties of the product itself, but can still provide some useful data.  It is therefore recommended that metallography and mechanical property testing be performed on the representative coupons as well as on actual product to identify if there is an adequate representation from the coupons.

Figure 3

Additionally, it is becoming more common practice that all test coupons be CT scanned before testing to identify the types of discontinuities that are present as this can dramatically impact the mechanical property results, see Figure 3.  A new hybrid version of this process is in-situ CT.  In this process, the load cell equipment is integrated within the CT system.  Multiple CT scans are performed while the sample coupons are under load providing the ability to capture 3D data of the samples internal structure movement through the point of failure.

Metrology of Complex AM Products

Many AM product designs are taking on complex geometries with internal features and chambers that are not accessible for conventional measurements methods such as contact coordinate measurement machines (CMM).  CT is now successfully solving this problem and is used to retrieve internal and external metrology data of AM products for product acceptance, see Figure 4, while also providing data in monitoring build variability within a specific AM machine.  Some innovative PBF AM equipment providers are also providing means of retrieving metrology data layer by layer during a product build.  CT can be further used to validate and monitor this process by comparing the final as-built data to the CT scan full metrology data.

Upcoming uses of CT in AM

CT is beginning to be used to validate and further improve upon AM product design and print simulation models by performing an as-built CT scan of the product and comparing it to the original simulation print model.

Conclusion

CT is increasingly being applied in assisting the AM manufacturing process in the evaluation of Product Integrity, In-situ Monitoring Validation, Product Qualification, Process Monitoring, Metrology, HIP Processing Qualification and Print Simulation Model Design Validation and Improvement.  As AM processes and methods continue to evolve, the application and capabilities of CT and other technologies are expected to continue to grow to support the rapidly expanding demands of one of the most exciting manufacturing processes of all time.

This article was supplied by industrial inspection specialist Northstar Imaging and originally appeared in The Engineer’s 2019 Tech Trends supplement

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