Automated Manufacturing Process Integrated with Intelligent Tooling Systems (AUTOMAN)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Mechanical Engineering


Large 3D panels are used on the bodies of cars, trains, ships and aircraft and for building interiors and facades. The
Beijing Olympic Bird's Nest Stadium provides a high-profile example of a construction employing 3D panels. The world
market for large 3D panels is worth billions of pounds and could grow manifold if cost-effective and sustainable methods of
panel production are available.
UK companies invest billions of pounds annually in dedicated tooling to manufacture 3D panels in a variety of materials.
The dies and moulds needed to produce such panels are time consuming to fabricate, involving extensive manufacturing
trials. Tools are normally associated with specific parts and, when they change, the old tools are discarded or have to be
dismounted and then stored. Thus, there are high levels of scrapped material, space and time wastage associated with
traditional tools. This makes current panel production techniques inefficient for small-batch production which is typical in
the manufacture of high-value products (e.g. sports cars, ships and aircraft).
Multi-Point Die Forming (MPDF) is a technology pioneered at MIT to enable die surfaces to be modified to generate
different component forms without requiring tool changes. MPDF involves using a matrix of pins to represent the die
surfaces. These can be varied before the forming operation by pre-adjusting the lengths of the pins. The setting of the pin
lengths in existing MPDF systems is a laborious trial-and-error process and thus these systems are not readily
This project will develop the world's first fully reconfigurable tooling system with in-process sensing and adaptation
capability. This advanced system will incorporate pins that are actuated so that their lengths can be automatically adjusted
during forming to enable more precise control of the process. It will include sensors and on-line modelling, metrology and
reverse engineering to ensure the production of accurate and defect-free panels. This new system will be usable for press
stamping and stretch-drawing operations as well as supporting and locating flexible composite panels during assembly.
The proposed system will have the following innovative features not found in prototypes developed to date:
- full programmability, in the in-process reconfiguration of the tool to generate tool surfaces digitally and to enable different
forming operations to be carried out;
- advanced modelling to support reconfiguration to increase quality and setup efficiency;
- on-line metrology to provide in-process information on real part geometry, considering machine and tool deflection and
part spring back;
- compensation of spring back and deflection to enable net-shape manufacturing;
- measures for ensuring part integrity including accurate geometry, limited residual stresses and high quality surface finish;
- localised heating to allow forming of various materials including composites.
The reconfigurable tooling system developed in the project will demonstrate the following benefits compared to current
- an increase in 3D panel manufacturing efficiency by 50%-100%;
- panel manufacturing cost savings of over 80%;
- overall material and energy savings of 30%-50% over the product life-cycle.
This project will be carried out in the Schools of Mechanical Engineering and of Metallurgy and Materials at the University
of Birmingham, the Department of Design, Manufacture & Engineering Management at the University of Strathclyde and
three industrial partners with the support of the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult and a Knowledge Transfer Network.
This complete chain linking organisations involved in research, equipment design and manufacture, knowledge transfer
and end use ensures the relevance of the work and rapid dissemination and exploitation of the results.

Planned Impact

(i) Beneficiaries
In addition to the academic community (see the Academic Beneficiaries section), the project will also benefit industrial
users of 3D formed panels requiring parts that are economically and sustainably produced. Another group of industrial
beneficiaries will be machinery builders planning to enter the multi-point forming (MPF) equipment market. A third group of
beneficiaries will be 3D panel suppliers who will require MPF systems to produce panels for end users.
(ii) Benefits
The project will generate both economic and environmental benefits.
The possibility to have 3D panels manufactured cost-effectively and sustainably using flexible, programmable and quickly
adaptable MPF systems will enlarge the multi-billion pound world market for 3D panels manifold. This will directly benefit
3D panel suppliers who will see increased trade and turnovers. Also, compared to traditional means, their manufacturing
will be more efficient in material and energy usage as there will be no need to scrap used tooling and build new tools each
time the panels change. Even if the MPF system proposed in this project would only be adopted in 10% of all applications,
savings in the order of hundreds of millions could be expected.
Using the MPF machine design knowledge assembled in this project, UK machine tool builders will have the opportunity to
enter the MPF market with the most adaptable and advanced MPF system ever constructed. The project will thus help to
spawn an indigenous high-technology machine building industry producing innovative MPF systems able to compete
successfully on the world stage.
Panel users from a wide range of industrial sectors (automobile, aerospace, railway, shipbuilding and construction) will
potentially benefit from an increase in panel manufacturing efficiency and a reduction in manufacturing costs. A study by
the PI and his colleagues has shown that up to 100% in efficiency gains and more than 80% reduction in costs can be
achieved. For example, the cost of panels in thermoformed PMMA (a popular cladding material for building interiors) could
potentially be brought down from 350 Pounds/sq.m to 30 Pounds/sq.m.
(iii) Ways to engage potential beneficiaries
The project will adopt a range of instruments to ensure that the potential beneficiaries mentioned above have the
opportunity to engage with it and to maximise the likelihood of the identified benefits actually being realised for them. The
instruments employed will include industrial workshops, training courses, people exchange, newsletters, trade magazine
articles, technical publications, web portals, networking and feasibility studies.
Partners in the project have wide experience of engaging with industry and other beneficiaries of their research. The
presence in the project team of a Centre in the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult will give the project immediate access to
a large pool of potential beneficiaries, ensuring that the team will be able fully to realise the potential impact of the project.
Description During the first year of the project, we developed the foundations (e.g. deformation mechanism and modelling interface) on which to build the remainder of the work (e.g. prototype design and tool fabrication).
During the second year of the project, we developed the hardware (e.g. mechanical components and control unit) and software (e.g. 3D surface modelling and FEA simulation of deformation defects and spring-back) for system integration and pilot demonstration.
During the third year of the project, we carried out the MPF experimental tests with lab-based pin-tools and Hydraulic 200Ton press for validation (e.g. Press forming several double curved panels with mild steel and Aluminium alloy sheets by three PhD graduates).
We now understand better how to design multi-point forming tools to produce high quality panels.
Exploitation Route There are already many freeform structures and shells (building facades and ship hulls) in existence (i.e. academic research and application on prototypes and products in hybrid laminates or high-performance materials) that are each made up from a variety of compound panels and in some way researchers and end users would benefit from innovative flexible forming process with reconfigurable tooling techniques (Press stamping and stretching).
The outcomes present a chance for industrial companies to avoid using dedicated tooling, saving a large amount of capital and storage space. The project offers improved response time to customers. Companies will be able to manufacture prototypes and legacy designs without any additional set up costs and time. The achievement will allow companies to change their approach to production.
The tool we produced is being made available for manufacturing panels for companies requiring them.
The results we obtained have been disseminated for other researchers to use in their work.
The industrial partners in the consortium also plan to design multi-point forming tools based on knowledge gained in this project.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Construction,Education,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport,Other

Description New data interface for 3D surface modelling and novel FEA simulation methods for flexible sheet forming have been developed by academic partners during the first year of the project. The tool prototype has been designed by SME partners and mechanical components have been fabricated by industrial partners during the second year of the project. New pin-tools and pin adjustment mechanism have been manufactured, assembled and tested by industrial SME partners. The final tool is to be used by one of the SME partners to produce panels for other companies. The consortium is available to design multi-point forming tools for other applications based on the experience gained in this project. Several MPF experimental tests with large-scale pin-tools have been carried out by industrial SME partners through press forming 2D and 3D panels in car-body panel steel sheets for pin-tool formability and further demonstration during the third year of the project. Discussion was recently initiated with GKN Aerospace about the possibility of applying the results of the project by the company. Another company that also expressed interest in the technology was ABCO (Canada).
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Construction,Education,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport,Other
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Title Modelling simulation and experimental test on multi-point forming (MPF) 
Description Deformation defects of MPF process were predicted with 3D modelling and FEM simulation techniques. The numerical results (e.g. wrinkling and spring-back) were validated with results of experimental test (i.e. double curved sheet panels formed by MPF tools). 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The 3D modelling and FEM simulation developed in AUTOMAN project is cost-effective digital technology available for novel manufacturing processing such as flexible manufacturing and robotic assembly. The MPF tools designed and fabricated in AUTOMAN project is reconfigurable manufacturing system suitable for low-volume and customized panel productions in several industrial sectors. 
Title FEA modelling for simulation sheet metal forming with reconfigurable pin-tools 
Description The models of thin sheet metal blank, thick elastic interpolators and large pin array have been created with FEA software for validation and prediction of sheet formability and deformation defects with reconfigurable pin-tools. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Excellent simulation results (e.g. stress/strain distribution, dimple/wrinkling deformation) and important parameters (e.g. forming forces, interpolator thickness) with this FEA modelling developed in this project, have significantly contributed to R&D stages of design and fabrication of pin-tool prototype led by SME partner. Furthermore, these FEA results will provide technical support to next stage of experiment and demonstration led by industrial partner. This will greatly result to saving of time in prototype design and tool fabrication, reduction of costs on panel manufacturing. 
Title The calculation algorithm of contact points between pin matrices and panel surface 
Description A novel method to obtain contact points between the adjustable pins arranged in array and a panel surface displayed in CAD format. In order to obtain proper envelope tool surface, the heights of the pins should be adjusted before forming the parts. When the target CAD surface of the sheet panel is given, together with the contact points between pin matrices and panel surface calculated with this algorithm, the heights of the pins are obtained. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Multi-Point Stamp Forming (MPSF) can create a variety of sheet metal parts by using the enveloped tooling-shapes of the upper and the lower pin matrices. This reconfigurable MPSF technology integrated with this algorithm can improve efficiency by reducing the manufacturing cost and time. Moreover, this technique makes it possible to manufacture a larger structural component in the small batch. 
Description Industrial application of AUTOMAN tooling for aircraft skin production in GKN Aerospace 
Organisation GKN
Department GKN Aerospace
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution 1. Copies of several of Prof Pham's new articles on Multi-Point Forming (MPF) have been sent to Manufacturing Development Engineers in GKN Aerospace Services Limited in Oct. 2019. 2. GKN's NDA info form filled by Senior Contracts Assistant, Research Support Group at University of Birmingham was sent to GKN in Nov. 2019. 3. Prof Pham at University of Birmingham forwarded GKN NDA-2828 form (CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT) to Contracts department at University of Birmingham in Dec. 2019.
Collaborator Contribution 1. GKN Aerospace expressed an interest in the AUTOMAN technology in Oct. 2019. 2. GKN NDA info form set up by GKN's contracts department was sent to Prof Pham at University of Birmingham in Nov. 2019. 3. GKN NDA-2828 form (CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT) was sent to Prof Pham's team at University of Birmingham in Dec. 2019.
Impact Initial information on AUTOMAN tooling technologies from Prof Pham's team at University of Birmingham and manufacturing projects in GKN Aerospace Services Limited has been shared by Prof Pham's team and GKN.
Start Year 2020
Title Adjustable pin-tools with digital pin adjustment mechanism 
Description Two matched sets of closed-packed pin-tools (i.e. upper and lower pin groups) can be adjusted in pin height by digital pin adjustment mechanism through reading 3D data of each pin coordinators which were calculated with surface interface software. 
Type Of Technology Systems, Materials & Instrumental Engineering 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The integrated reconfigurable pin-tools (lab-based prototype and large-scale industrial system) will improve the flexibility and automation of manufacturing for low-volume sheet panel forming through reduction of tool cost and fabrication time. 
Title Surface modelling and 3D data interface for reconfigurable pin-tools 
Description Panel surface of CAD model in standard format of commercial software is selected and visualized by pin-tool designers with new interface software. 3D coordinates of reconfigurable pin-tools are automatically generated for computer control unit of pin-tools as well as FEA modelling and simulation of sheet forming process. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact 3D data interface developed in this project will result in highly flexible sheet forming process with production-scale tooling through speeding up adjustment of tool surface in large pin-tools and then reducing time and cost of prototype design and pin-tool manufacture in industrial applications. 
Description A presentation on thickness distribution in multi- point forming in 39th MATADOR Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Mr Ali Elghawail (suppervised by Prof Pham) , from University of Birmingham, UK gave a presentation on his PhD reserach on sheet metal forming using flexible tools (in title "Effect of overhang between die and blank holder on thickness distribution in multi- point forming" )
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Digital Technologies for Manufacturing Innovation: Embracing Industry 4.0 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The event is organised by the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing (ifAM) at The University of Nottingham, in conjunction with EPSRC and Innovate UK. The even will close with a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities presented by Industry 4.0.
AUTOMAN poster in the Innovate UK template, leaflet, questionnaire and presentation have been created, delivered and shown during two-day Nottingham events, which include project outline (scientific and technical objectives), project impact (economic benefits and example applications), further challenges and opportunities (other applications), contact details (contact person, email address, phone numbers) and further information (project website).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Flexible Manufacturing Business Modelling Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Innovate UK offered this business modelling workshop to help participants in its Flexible Manufacturing CR&D competition. This workshop is for CEO's, CTO's, Head of Innovation, Business Development, Strategy or the lead applicant for the competition.
Mellissa Norman, a business model expert from Innovate UK, has covered a mixture of practical exercises, case studies and the latest learnings from the field of business.
AUTOMAN case study has been contributed to Flexible Manufacturing webinar slides (edited by Mellissa Norman), which include product flexibility with figures of reconfigurable multi-point press forming technology, mapping AUTOMAN with potential business model, partnerships, market potential, customer segments, changes in costs.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015