It is no secret that for some time now the U.K. forging sector has been under pressure. Traditional forging houses are struggling when it comes to integrating new technologies. The wider supply chain isn’t always able to help because they are busy meeting today’s needs and not necessarily focusing on the long-term future of the companies around them. The Advanced Forming Research Centre at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde is helping ease the strain.
The forging and automotive industries go hand-in-hand. They need each other, just as do the forging and aerospace sectors. When the forging sector pairs up with end-use industries, both sectors become very much focused on developing new technologies.
It is often a difficult process for companies, regardless of size or where they are in the overall chain, to make the leap and take these technologies from being a piece of R&D work to embedding them into the production process. This lack of implementation isn’t only holding back the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), but it is also having a negative impact on the forging sector as well, particularly in the U.K. This need not be the case because there is support to be had.
Presently, the U.K. annually imports tens of millions of pounds of forgings and maybe even hundreds of millions. That is a significant amount of money that the U.K. forging industry is missing out on.
A primary reason for that is a lack of implementation of new technologies. For smaller suppliers in the chain, being in a position to implement new technologies into their production processes has the potential to revolutionize their businesses. For example, it would put them in a much stronger bidding position for large collaborative projects alongside the OEMs.
Take lightweighting, for example. The automotive sector is excited about the technologies behind this trend, but few companies are fully embracing it. As a research center working with companies in manufacturing industries, we at the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) have worked with these technologies first-hand and know the benefits they can bring.
Recently, we worked on designing a new transmission for the automotive sector. The initial designs are bigger in size physically but ultimately lighter in weight because we are looking at combining two gearboxes into one. To do this, we focused on streamlining the manufacturing process in order to remove material during forging, resulting in a reduction in both weight and waste.
With this sort of technology, as with many others, there is the issue of market confidence. I have frequently heard companies saying “we would love to do that, but we simply can’t invest in it without an order.” It is often the case that without investing and proving the technology to the market at production scale, however, they won’t get the order – it’s a chicken-and-egg situation.
The key to overcoming this is for all players in the supply chain to work together. It is crucial that the OEMs support the smaller forging businesses. There is a lot of work they can do together on cost modeling, producing business cases and bid submissions. At the moment, there is a lot of money wasted on inefficient manufacturing, but companies could eliminate this by working together.
The U.K. government’s High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, of which the AFRC is a part, is uniquely placed to facilitate this collaboration. We are also in a position to help with funding bids, but companies need to be open to engagement.
Looking Farther Down the Line
Technology doesn’t stand still, so there is a need to continually look to the future. At the AFRC, we are looking at working on near-net-forged shafts with minimal machining and cold-rolled teeth for the automotive sector. This project could reduce machining to about 1 mm of stock, and the teeth could allow for stronger gears on shafts. This technology can be engineered into the initial design in order to make the end component smaller and with a higher load capacity.
In support of this work, the AFRC has been testing varying gear steels to compare core performance and to unearth additional potential benefits from this manufacturing process. If this or any other new technology (such as radial forging) was to be implemented by end-user companies, it could have a positive impact through the entire supply chain. The result would be more companies sourcing their forgings from within the U.K.
If the automotive and aerospace supply chains in the U.K. made a move toward sourcing its forgings domestically, it would greatly enhance the wider manufacturing sector due to the requirement for additional suppliers with different technical know-how. Take electrification within the automotive world, for example. All of the technology around this is aimed at reducing emissions – something the aerospace sector has been looking at for decades.
Forging companies that make up the U.K. supply chain should be scrambling to manufacture parts to assist with the transition from petrol and diesel engines, but that isn’t happening. I don’t believe that this is because the companies don’t know how. Instead, it’s a case in which many are unsure how to take a technology from the R&D stage to the production line, or even which technologies to back.
Technology moves fast. Not long ago, the initiatives were all about diesel cars. That has since been turned on its head, and it is now all about electrification. But the government’s ban on the sale of new diesel cars and vans won’t come into force until 2040. By then it is possible that another new technology would hit the market and bring a new industry-wide focus and potentially another initiative. This constant change makes it hard for companies to progress from the R&D phase to full implementation. You have to question the feasibility of building a factory based on current technology, even if it is state-of-the-art, because it could arguably be obsolete within a decade. Manufacturers are having to predict the future.
Instead of working alone, however, companies could look at how the aerospace sector has implemented emission-reducing technologies. There is a lot that the different sectors can learn from each other. Automotive companies are currently focused on design and are not necessarily looking at the manufacturing processes themselves.
There is a lot of innovation going into design, but many components are still being manufactured using traditional technology such as billet upsetting and machining. Those involved in auto manufacturing could learn a lot from aerospace because those companies have been much quicker to embrace new technologies right through the manufacturing cycle.
The AFRC founding members – companies such as Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Timet – all came from the aerospace sector, but now the Centre is also working with significant players in the automotive sector, as are the other HVM Catapult centers. This makes the transfer of knowledge even easier since we have oversight of many of the large collaborative projects that are coming up and can facilitate company introductions as well as the technology work. However, this will only be possible if the companies themselves are open to it and recognize the benefits.
A Brighter Future
The positive knock-on effects of the implementation of new technologies are far-reaching. Investing in new technology would provide U.K. forging businesses with the opportunity to re-shore a significant proportion of imported forgings each year. This would bring with it an increase in the country’s GDP and could have a significant impact on exports as suppliers become more competitive.
There is also the added benefit that it will enhance the country’s ability to deliver prototype manufacturing. At the moment, our automotive supply chain struggles with this due to scalability. It is only equipped to support high-volume production, which is redundant without prototype validation.
The process of physically implementing new processes into production lines often involves halting production in order to carry out the implementation of new technology, whether that be kit or software. It is likely that many companies simply cannot afford to stop production. They must meet customer demand or the customer will go elsewhere.
Throughout the supply chain, companies are squeezed on cost. Every company wants to procure its components at the lowest possible price, and this makes it difficult for smaller companies, such as forging houses, to take on a significant outlay, such as a new forging press.
This is where government comes into play. The U.K. government is a great supporter of manufacturing companies, hence the development of the HVM Catapult and its investment in centers such as the AFRC. It is important that government continues with this support and with financial assistance by way of grants and tax breaks for the individual businesses. It needs to encourage collaboration and retain a focus on the smaller businesses, as well as the OEMs.
Collaboration is King
Whether it be an immediate need of an individual company or in the interest of securing the future of the forging sector for generations to come, collaboration is of utmost importance. The positive outcomes of technology transfer will not be realized without it.
As an R&D center, the AFRC (and centers like it) has a major role in bringing much-needed collaboration to life, but companies need to recognize the role that we can play in their business. If a company doesn’t have the right mindset, there is no useful help that we can provide.
The forging sector may be struggling at the moment, but it can have a bright future. There are issues, but there are also solutions. These solutions can be brought to life if the various parties involved open their doors and start talking to each other.