When it comes to micro-machining, Europe has a long history of innovation dating back to ancient watchmakers through to chip-makers of today. Why? Because they know that flawless micro-manufacturing is key to building precision instrumentation and technology. EU-backed industrial research is making sure Europe continues to develop cost-efficient, eco-friendly micro-machining technologies for complex 3D shapes with cutting-edge materials.
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Industry today demands not only smaller, more accurate machining equipment, but they must also be more mobile, cost-efficient and eco-friendly, requiring less handling and plant space. That is a lot to ask for, but those who get it right will reap the dividends.
Micro-manufacturing technologies play an increasing role in diverse fields, from electronics and bio-medics to watchmaking and other fields requiring ultra-high-precision machining. Market growth in the sector is expected at between 10 and 15% over the next few years. With ambitious programmes and a focus on innovative manufacturing, Europe is keen to capture a good slice of that growth.
Integ-micro is one of a range of research projects funded by the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) to boost industrial innovation. The project consortium - led by Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, Italy and supported by 19 leading academic and industrial partners - set out to develop production technologies for complex 3D micro-devices through multi-process integration of a range of extremely precise engineering techniques.
Integ-micro's research focused on "developing hybrid, reconfigurable, multi-tasking machines and combined processes". According to the project, this meant meeting a number of challenging requirements. The machines needed to be reduced to the micro/meso-scale (10-10 000 µm range). Think pinheads and smaller. They had to be able to form complex 3D shapes incorporating high-precision features and various structural materials, from metals to polymers. They had to be suitable for large series, high-throughput production, while at the same time customisable - what the team calls "continuously-varying fabrication", which until now has proven very complex to achieve.
The team knew when they set out four years ago that, in order to get the desired efficiencies and savings, they had to combine several machining technologies into a single machine and make sure they run like, well, clockwork.
Luckily, the attention to detail and planning paid off for Integ-micro. As the project ends this September, the team has announced the completion of a set of demonstrator platforms which integrate different high-precision techniques to generate complex 3D micro-components. Integ-micro's solutions are more accurate, less fiddly, more robust and take up less floor space. For manufacturers, this means greater throughput and productivity.
This sort of innovation is just what is needed to stimulate Europe's high-tech industrial sector and the wider economy, while helping the EU meet its ambitious Digital Agenda for Europe and 2020 Strategy.
For example, Integ-micro's laser-assisted ultra-high-speed micro-mill turning machine has been developed to ensure flexible and cost-effective fabrication of mass-customised micro-parts and moulds for the consumer electronics market, the watch industry and the fast-growing biomedical sector.
School's 'in' for summer
The seasoned Integ-micro researchers saw their task as more than developing cutting-edge technologies and production methods for industry today, but also as a launching pad for future scientists and engineers.
Integ-micro's Summer School, which recently took place, gave the next generation of industrial scientists the chance to explore emerging technologies in this crucial field. Several project partners have also set up the Integ-micro Co-Located Demonstration Facility to put the five platforms through their paces. The Swiss-based firm Sarix SA, which specialises in micro-EDM technology for precision micro-machining, and was not part of the original consortium, backed the work of Integ-micro by officially sponsoring the new facility.
"Like you, we think that to undertake small precision work, only small machines are necessary, small in cost as well as dimensions, but large and versatile in terms of their benefits. We have achieved this thanks to the use of the right technology," notes Sarix about the reasons for its success in an increasingly competitive micro-machining market.