Can you tell me about Additive Automations and how it was founded?
Bush... Additive Automations develops flexible human-centred robotic systems to automate additive manufacturing (AM) processes, optimising productivity and safety in manufacturing.
Phil Kitchens, our CTO, and I founded the company back in 2018. I often used AM machines while working as a production engineer early in my career. I found frequent quality issues frustrating and always left the workshop tasting metal — increasing my awareness of the dangers of working so closely with metals when removing support structures. I started looking at how we could remove humans from this task and introduce a more intelligent approach. Automation often allows manufacturers to minimise human involvement in dirty or dangerous tasks while also improving quality and efficiency — why couldn’t it do the same for AM post-processing?
However, unless business owners can see an immediate return-on-investment, they often believe that automating AM is risky and an unnecessary cost. So, I decided that going it alone was the best way to have an impact on society.
I resigned, personally funded my master’s degree in robotics and started my own business full-time. We caught the attention of Innovate UK and National Research Council Canada, both of which are now funding our work. Today, we’re a highly specialised team of four who develop technology that will protect people, empower humans with robots and help the environment by decarbonising the UK. We’re also looking for a software engineer to grow the team to five.
What are your main products or services?
Bush... We are currently working on Project SALSA (Separation of Additive-Layer Supports by Automation). We aim to use robotics and machine vision to automate the most time-consuming and expensive parts of post-processing in AM, which could reduce the average cost per part by 15 per cent.
Our current system uses cobots because of the high payload to size ratio and integrated force sensors. The cobot uses data collected from its sensors and machine vision to detect support structures and separate them from the final AM part. This allows skilled technicians and engineers to focus on more rewarding tasks while robots handle the machining.
We’ve partnered with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield, National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and Renishaw, a global leader in AM, to further develop our service offering. Our research team has the unique opportunity to work on a combined hardware and software solution with the help of veterans in both fields.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
Bush... Any form of global disruption can threaten a start-up at its early stages — COVID-19, for example, has posed a significant challenge to our team. We lost access to vital testing equipment when the University of Sheffield closed, bringing an entire project to a standstill, pushing milestones backwards and scaring off private investors.
While we lack equipment, our passionate and dedicated staff makes up for it by building stronger relationships with our partners and stakeholders. Fortunately, we can still work on new ideas and develop the more challenging software side of our project.
What is the main innovation you bring to the market?
Bush... AM is an inherently flexible process — it makes batches of one feasible in a way that cannot be achieved using traditional technologies. If manufacturers want to scale up their production, they must look at post-processing.
Post-processing accounts for around 40 per cent of the part’s cost and is also one of the most time-consuming areas of production. Automating post-processing could help manufacturers to speed up support removal and finishing, reducing cost per part and increasing the quality and repeatability of the process. However, introducing robotics to the AM process might be time-consuming, because manufacturers will have to train staff to accurately program robots for each design they produce. Our unique solution gives AM experts the tools to program the robot easily, with training that takes hours or days rather than weeks or months.
How does your product tie into the growing use of automation?
Bush... Manufacturers and analysts (such as MTU Aero Engines) suggest that by 2030, about 15 per cent of aircraft engines will be built using AM components. Investing in AM allows aerospace engineers to develop more complex geometries using lightweight yet strong materials. However, until the process becomes easily scalable, aerospace manufacturers may not achieve the repeatability, traceability and quality required in the industry. Project SALSA could be the answer to deliver high-quality parts at a lower price and a higher volume.