Kieron Salter sports a hard hat and high vis vest and walks us, literally and figuratively, through his vision for the future of UK advanced manufacturing. Standing at the epicentre of the UK’s engineering cluster at Silverstone Park, the CEO and founder of KW Special Projects tours his audience through a 2,000 square metre facility that’s soon to be filled with rows of polymer and metal additive manufacturing systems that will make up a brand-new Digital Manufacturing Centre (DMC).

Providing this whistle stop visit via YouTube and speaking with TCT over Zoom, it’s not exactly the kind of ‘through the doors’ feature we envisioned pre-pandemic but as the final pieces come together ready for a 2021 launch, Salter shares how those challenges of the last year have emphasised how valuable the DMC and its digital toolset could be for British manufacturing.

“It made us question whether what we’re doing is valid,” Salter told TCT. “Additive manufacturing is still a growing sector. We’re trying to carve a marketplace out of something that’s still growing. So, it was always a risk but we had an even bigger risk when COVID came along. We had to question really whether what we were doing was the right thing and whether it was the right time, particularly because two of our early adopter sectors, [which] we believed were going to be aerospace and automotive, got hit quite hard by the direct impact of COVID. We came to the conclusion that actually we believe additive manufacturing and digital manufacturing in particular were going to be an important part of the recovery.”

Similar to how we work and communicate became largely digital overnight, Salter suggests manufacturers and industry must now take a similar agile approach in order to become more efficient and resilient. The DMC is setting itself up to be a qualified supply chain for onshoring and exporting UK manufacturing and will function as a technology partner for companies within automotive, aerospace, defence, industrial, medical and space sectors. AM is a big part of that strategy. Having founded engineering company KW Special Projects back in 2012 and provided extensive polymer printing capabilities primarily to the automotive sector, the DMC is an extension of Salter’s ambitions to scale up and expand into metal AM across multiple industries.

“We didn’t want to just have a small step change from where we were, we wanted to build a very capable industrial scale production facility,” Salter says of the DMC’s early plans. The pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place when the project was granted 3.2 million GBP in Local Growth funding through a public-private partnership with South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) and a well-timed extension to a site by MEPC at Silverstone Park provided KWSP with the ideal location to create a purpose-built technology agnostic facility.

“Our differentiator is the fact that we’re an engineering- led business,” Salter said. “We, first and foremost, are engineers that design parts and systems, and we’re now offering the manufacturing solutions to go with it. We’re always seeking new technologies. The DMC is not just open for business but open for partnerships and collaboration and so if there are American, European, Asian companies that want to have a base in the UK, we can offer that. If they’ve got technologies they want to demonstrate in the UK, we can do that. That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to build; a real hub of additive and digital manufacturing at Silverstone.”

That collaborative philosophy also filters into its chosen technologies, curated with support from UK- based AM equipment provider Laserlines and British machine manufacturers such as RPS and Renishaw, the latter of which the DMC recently placed an order with for two of its quad-laser RenAM 500Q metal AM systems. Describing the partnership with Renishaw as a “close collaboration,” it’s a two-way street, as Salter explains, that will grant the DMC access to the latest technology capabilities but also provide critical feedback and learnings to OEMs to help drive efficiencies.

In addition to printing technology, the DMC intends to provide end-to-end production capabilities with a UK-first fully connected digital workflow that follows parts from design through to inspection via Renishaw Connect. Within that workflow, the DMC also houses ancillary hardware including post-processing equipment from polymer finishing and colouring expert DyeMansion and DMG MORI advanced CNC machinery secured through a partnership with Produmax, a Yorkshire-based precision engineering specialist within the aerospace industry, which has since set up a satellite centre at the Silverstone site.

“It’s not just additive, it’s around digital and connectivity,” Salter said. “It’s all about providing engineering services that lead through to complete manufacturing and to cover a range of technologies. So, polymers and a range of metal capabilities including aluminium, Scalmalloy, titanium, but also some newer technologies that we’re either involved in developing or developing ourselves like ceramics.”

Of course, all of this equipment requires a skilled team to run it and Salter has been busy assembling a crew of experts across additive and engineering to deliver on this ambition. Over the next five years, Salter says the DMC has the potential to create as many as 50 jobs for the local area. To attract the right talent, particularly younger would-be engineers, the DMC has been designed to promote a clean contemporary picture of manufacturing with collaboration zones, hot desking and education centres which can be utilised by schools and universities to inspire a new generation of engineers.

That learning aspect also extends to conversations the DMC is already having with potential customers, large and small, around the benefits of various advanced manufacturing techniques whether it’s using AM for jigs and fixtures, optimising a design for part consolidation or deploying Additive Casting technology, which the Centre recently added in a partnership with Enable Manufacturing.

“3D printing metal parts isn’t always the right solution but quite often printing the tooling is and then you can make a homogenous part from a cast material rather than worrying about the parameter optimisation for a laser powder bed material,” Salter explains. “We want to make sure we’ve got all those bases covered and that we are focused on solving customers problems, not trying to force square pegs into round holes.”

As more machines settle in at the DMC and the team continues to grow, the DMC is on track for its grand opening later this year. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we can go through the doors for real.

Salter adds: “We hope that at the end of this we [can] stick a big Union Jack on the front of the building and the UK Government can point at it and say ‘well, that’s what we’re talking about.’ It’s another case study. It’s another success story. And this is what we do best.”

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