The UK company Advanced Alloys processes significant quantities of aerospace scrap, which is currently sorted manually. It is difficult to determine the grade and composition of the different materials, and currently rare elements found in aerospace alloys, which are hard to identify, are not sorted. This results in high-value elements being amalgamated in lower value materials, such as stainless variants.
Sorting rare earth metals for reuse
Advanced Alloys worked with the AMRC, part of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult network of research centres, to explore the improvement and automation of the process of identifying and sorting rare earth metals for reuse.
A team of engineers from the AMRC's Factory 2050 facility worked with Advanced Alloys to suggest technologies that could be used within the automated process. These included the use of cameras, robotics, conveyors, inscribing technology and high-speed X-ray fluorescence. The AMRC also provided support with understanding the costs and benefits associated with each specific technology.
Stephen Hall, Managing Director of Advanced Alloys, said while events of 2020 have meant temporarily pushing the pause button on the project, the company hopes to restart in 2021. “In a way, the pause might not have been a bad thing,” said Hall. “The suggestions we had from the AMRC took us to the edge of what is currently possible, and further refinement of image analysis software, in particular, would help us get to where we want to be. Robotics is great at identifying pieces and components of a regular size and shape, but we're often looking at irregular shapes, sharp edges, and an array of different sizes.
“We're pushing at the limits of technology here. The strength of the AMRC is in adapting developments at the cutting edge of new technology into the workplace, and it is inspirational to see.”
"Working on something important"
Phil Yates of the AMRC said the work undertaken for Advanced Alloys was ‘fascinating’ and the type of project ‘where you realise you're working on something important’. Yates added: “There is already a lot of automation across the industry in manufacturing and assembly. Where there's much less automation is in recycling. It's more challenging to find ways to automate the identification and sorting of scrap materials. So, this was a great project for the AMRC. We like doing the awkward stuff; the stuff that taxes our brains and uses our skills. We put together simulations of a number of methods for identifying and cleaning different scrap metals, some of which are very expensive and can also be dangerous, so these elements could be separated out from the rest of the scrap and recycled for use again."
Stephen added: "Working with the AMRC opened our eyes to what is possible. I'd say to any business considering working with the AMRC, this is a way you can access new technology, understand what's available and how it might apply practically to your work. We often expect innovative technology to be cost-prohibitive and out of our reach, but the AMRC bridges that divide between normal manufacturing businesses and advanced engineering developments."