Cutting edge

September 24, 1999

Collaboration between Sheffield Hallam and industry has unlocked the commercial potential of high-speed machine drilling.

As a result of an interview between a Sheffield Hallam University professor and a potential PhD student in 1993, the university is now a partner in a unique company whose products are succeeding in a global market.

Together with Bodycote International, Sheffield Hallam has founded Bodycote SHU Coatings to manufacture and market adv-anced dry-cutting coatings for machine tools. I am director and my former postgraduate student, Iain Smith, is production manager.

The company's products slash machining costs in global high-tech industries, including car and aircraft manufacture. Cutting and drilling tools treated with Bodycote SHU coatings operate at what were previously impossibly high dry-cutting speeds, solving all the problems caused by expensive and environmentally hazardous cutting lubricants.

When I arrived at Sheffield Hallam in 1993 I began, with Iain, to explore coatings with small additions of the rare earth material yttrium - using the new Arc Bond Sputtering technology as deposition method. These coatings turned out to be very hard and oxidation resistant up to 950°C, with extremely stable interfaces between the ceramic coating and the metallic substrate.

The next step was to find an industrial collaborator. Leading Sheffield cutting tool maker Hydra Tools International agreed to cooperate in the LINK Multicoat surface engineering project supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Department of Trade and Industry.

After three years of research and development a new coating dedicated for high-speed machining (HSM) was born and it proved extremely successful in trials. The HSM technique reduces machining costs so drastically that it enables manufacturers in industrial countries to achieve production costs competitive with those of low labour cost, low-overhead manufacturers in developing countries.

Recognising the commercial potential, Hydra Tools immediately went on to develop and market a new generation of milling cutters, the Whisper Mill range. This rapid appearance on the world market of products was made possible by the Materials Research Institute's advanced technical resources. A production sized PVD coating set-up permits large-scale process and product development, cutting out the time-consuming and costly scaling-up process that is usually unavoidable when technology transfers from academia to industry.

Next Bodycote Metal Technology stepped in. They suggested setting up a specialist company dedicated to commercialising the innovative coating products developed by Sheffield Hallam University.

The university agreed. After the success of more trials, Bodycote and the university founded a new company and set up a small factory near the university's City Campus.

Since 1998 the company has produced PVD coatings for the British tool industry, with the coating for the Whisper Mill range as its top product. Hydra Tools has gone on to become a market leader and its export rates have climbed to 80 per cent. Their customers include Daimler Chrysler and GEC Alstom.

We are involved in a number of new research projects, mainly supported by the European Union. New corrosion and wear resistant products based on the chemically extremely stable Niobium are likely to be on the market soon, for use in manufacturing applications including the textile and automotive industries.

Dieter Munz is professor of surface engineering at Sheffield Hallam University's materials research institute.

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