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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/T028661/1
Title: What happens when you cross LEGO and a Star Trek Replicator?
Principal Investigator: Pope, Dr S A
Other Investigators:
Allwood, Professor DA
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Automatic Control and Systems Eng
Organisation: University of Sheffield
Scheme: Standard Research - NR1
Starts: 01 February 2020 Ends: 31 January 2022 Value (£): 237,248
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Design Engineering Manufacturing Machine & Plant
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing
Related Grants:
Panel History:  
Summary on Grant Application Form
The majority of products manufactured today have a final form that is essentially fixed by the manufacturing processes, for example plastic bottles produced by injection moulding (melting plastic pellets and then injecting them into a mould), an electrical circuit produced by etching electrical tracks onto a circuit board (chemically removing unwanted metal to create the desired circuit pattern), or a car engine part produced by machining a piece of metal (removing unwanted metal using a tool). This makes the resulting products both inherently inflexible to changes in user/environment demand (for example the need for a larger bottle without replacing the existing one) and difficult to recycle at the end of their useful life (for example recycling metal car parts is energy and time consuming, requiring parts to be collected and re-processed, such as by melting down and re-forming). In contrast, many people know the benefits of digital reconfigurable architectures from childhood, i.e. LEGO studded bricks and other related toys. They allow a product to be manufactured from a finite set of building blocks and then readily modified or de-constructed using an "inverse" process without generating unnecessary waste. This project will develop a manufacturing process which uses non-contact techniques to repeatedly organise, assemble and disassemble building blocks to produce a product - in other words, "LEGO-like 21st century engineering building blocks". The first task is to develop individual blocks/elements that can be repeatedly connected and disconnected. This could be done using mechanical means such as with LEGO, but this puts limits on the shapes of the blocks, their physical properties and how they can be positioned and connected. Instead we will develop methods that can be remotely switched on and off by some stimulus, similar to pressing a button on a remote control to change the channel on a TV. Certain properties of materials allow such connections to be made and controlled using stimuli such as heat and magnetic fields. The second task is to sort blocks and move them into a position so that they can be connected. We will do this using non-contact techniques, i.e. instead of physically picking and placing the blocks using a device such as a robotic arm, we will use forces generated on the blocks by acoustic and magnetic fields. The combination of these two processes (connection and sorting/moving blocks) will lead to a prototype manufacturing processes that is a bit like the Star Trek Replicator, which allows different products to be built form a set of standard blocks and then disassembled, recycled and then re-used to built a new or reconfigured product. However, in our case the building blocks are at the mesoscale (0.01-10mm) as opposed to the molecular level. We will then test this prototype manufacturing process to make several products for which it is particularly suited, such as metamaterials which have a wide range of applications from improving telecommunication to making environments quieter.
Key Findings
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Further Information:  
Organisation Website: http://www.shef.ac.uk