Saving manufacturers time and money by improving their design and production processes is the mission of the manufacturing engineering centre at the University of Wales, Cardiff.
The centre, which has just received Pounds 2.5 million from the European Regional Development Fund uses computer modelling and computer-controlled machining methods to make in a day components that use to take up to six weeks to develop.
"We have produced a variety of products using this rapid prototyping technology, from watches to parts for the European Fighter Aircraft," said Duc Pham, the centre's director and Cardiff's professor of computer-controlled manufacture. "The computer builds up a model of the component in question, layer by layer. Then, when the model is complete a laser cuts the part according to the model's specification in either metal or plastic."
Another of the centre's specialities is using information technology to detect faults. In partnership with local company Seal Technology Systems it has developed computer vision technology for detecting faults in engine seals, a breakthrough which has enabled the company to win many new orders.
Computer-aided manufacturing technology is expensive. A single machine can cost Pounds 100,000, more than many small businesses can afford.
Such businesses can use the centre's equipment for a fee. Those with bigger budgets can get advice on buying and using computer aided design and rapid prototyping technology.
"Our work is not limited to small businesses, however," Professor Pham said. "We are working with IBM, for example, on pattern recognition and with Mitutoyo of Japan on precision measuring."
Professor Pham is also engaged in pure research, and has an academic team of 70 to support the centre's research and development projects.
His own particular interest is microelectronics and he is attempting to create an army of two-millimetre long silicon ants with integral microprocessors. He hopes these mini robots will one day be able to walk around and cooperate on simple taks such as finding a source of light.
Most of the centre's postgraduates are from overseas. Professor Pham says it is difficult to persuade British undergraduates to stay on at university to enhance their skills in PhD levels. But he insisted that advanced manufacturing is the future of engineering, and that British students and businesses need these skills if they are to compete effectively in the 21st century.