LLANELLI, SOUTH WALES — A team of eight A-Level physics students from Swansea has won ‘Most Innovative Solution to the Project Set’ from the Engineering Education Scheme Wales (EESW) for developing a unique method of detecting defects at Schaeffler UK’s engine component manufacturing plant in South Wales.

“This is not the first success we’ve had as a school in the EESW competition,” enthuses Rhys Browning, Head of Physics at YsgolGyfun Gwyr School in Gowerton, Swansea. “We’ve now won awards some seven years in succession, for which we are very appreciative towards Schaeffler for its support during these years.”

Gwyr School

Schaeffler’s manufacturing plant in Llanelli, South Wales, produces high-precision engine components for the automotive market. The plant has supported EESW since the scheme was first introduced across Wales in 2007. The plant acts as an EESW ‘link’ company and so each year devotes time and resources in helping to advise students on their selected projects.

As a nationwide program in Wales, EESW is helping to enlighten young people about the challenges and opportunities presented by the four STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This is carried out each year through a project involving schools across Wales and industry. The aim is to encourage students to study STEM courses in further or higher education and to take an interest in engineering as a career.

The program operates through local companies such as Schaeffler, who set teams of Year 12 A-Level students project briefs relating to actual industrial problems. Over a period of six months, the students then work together to solve these challenges by cooperating with engineers from the link companies. This typically involves arranging site visits, presenting ideas to senior managers and attending presentations and technical workshops at the ‘link’ company.

This year Schaeffler worked with a mixed team, comprising Elis Rees, Jac Reid, Tara Beynon, Natalia John, Cadi Rhind, Nia Thomas, Ffion Wathan and Dylan Morgan. The students were first given a guided tour of Schaeffler’s manufacturing plant in order to acquaint them with production practices, before being shown six potential projects to choose from.

Derrick Lewis, Technology Manager at Schaeffler UK and key contact at the company for EESW projects, describes how this year’s project was selected: “This year, we wanted to ensure that the students had maximum buy-in to the project from the outset. We therefore gave the team the opportunity to select the project that enthused them the most. However, we did push the boundaries a little further than usual this year by asking the team to define a ‘Statement of Requirements’ and ‘Success Criteria’ themselves, before submitting this back to Schaeffler for approval. This engaged the students even more, as they had to write down what they expected to achieve themselves.”

But there was one other key success factor, says Lewis: “This year, we also decided to train the team in project or time-management skills, which we felt were critical. The tools and techniques that we trained the students in were applied very well throughout the duration of the project. In my opinion, these skills were key to the team’s overall success this year.”

The challenge solved by the students was to devise a unique low-cost method of detecting defects in raw material, in this case 1.5 tonne coils of steel used in the production of mechanical tappets at Llanelli. The second stage of the project was to develop a working prototype system that illustrated the method of operation of this in the production environment.

The students developed a low-cost inspection system that comprised a vision and colour recognition system to detect a variety of surface defects on the incoming steel strip. These defects are not manufacturing defects but normally arise during transit. The defects may appear as small (down to 0.1 mm in depth) surface indentations, scuffs or scratches.

The prototype system comprised a single-vision system/camera that is able to detect slight changes in the color of the steel. A normal, defect-free surface appears as grey on the vision system’s color scale, but a defect appears as white on the color scale. The vision system is able to inspect the steel reliably, even at high production speed/feed rates. If a defect is detected, the system sends an appropriate output signal or alarm to a controller to stop the process.

In practice, says Lewis, a production-ready version of the system would require not one but four cameras in order to view all aspects of the steel coil or bar as it is fed to the forging press. “However, the objective of the prototype system was to prove the principle, which it certainly did,” says Lewis.

The team was rewarded for its endeavor.  The students attended the EESW’s annual South Wales awards and presentation ceremony held at The Celtic Manor Resort, Newport. The team’s prototype scale model solution was on display, along with a detailed written report and presentation slides. The solution was judged by a panel of EESW assessors and was subsequently awarded the ‘Most Innovative Solution to the Project Set’ prize. The team was also nominated for awards in two other categories and narrowly missed out on the overall winner award. 

But Lewis says there is more to come next year. “I’d like to start a little earlier in the year and have some kind of engineering open-day at Llanelli. We may even involve the students in the plant’s ‘MOVE’ initiative, a continuous improvement program, where they could help us to eliminate waste or improve workflows through the production process.”

Gwyr School’s Rhys Browning sums up the value he sees in companies such as Schaeffler working with local schools: “The support and encouragement given by Derrick Lewis and his team at Schaeffler has inspired many of our students go on to study engineering at university, which is what really matters. All these students have mentioned how well the EESW projects have prepared them for their future studies.”