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The Basque Country, Europe’s future machine-tool lab

The European CHAMELEON project, being led by the IK4 Alliance and with a significant presence of Basque organisations, has developed a type of machine tool with the capacity to adapt to a range of conditions and requirements by means of intelligent systems and devices.

Machine tools are a key component in industrial processes, so they represent a crucial area of research in the quest for added value for the European business base. This field has received fresh impetus recently with new mechatronic concepts coming onto the scene; they include the incorporation of intelligent devices, a phenomenon that promises a significant increase in the all-round performance of the machines. To take advantage of the opportunity to increase the added value of European machine tools by means of these new mechatronic concepts, the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme started the CHAMELEON project, which has a budget of 5 million euros. The project has been developed by a consortium of top players in the sector with a noteworthy presence of Basque organisations. The IK4 Research Alliance has played a key role in the project with the leadership of IK4-Ideko and the participation of IK4-Tekniker. What is more, another ten European R&D centres, universities and companies have taken part in the initiative; a prominent role is being played by Basque companies like Soraluce, Fagor Automation and Goialde High Speed. The final results have been applied to two machines, each one belonging to the manufacturers Soraluce and Doerries Scharmann and set up at the laboratories of IK4-Ideko in Elgoibar (Basque Country) and at RWTH Aaachen University (Germany), respectively. Following the development of the project, most of the devices are currently in their industrial process stage, so they can be incorporated into their production milieus; that way the innovations developed by the project can be gradually introduced into the European industrial base. The machine-tool sector is probably the most exporting, globalised and innovative industry in the Basque economy. The economic crisis and growing international competition have led to rapid specialisation of the sector, which is being fed by the innovative muscle of the R&D centres. The R&D centres IK4-Tekniker and IK4-Ideko, members of the IK4 Alliance, are important references in the ongoing quest for innovations and new developments for Spanish machine-tool manufacturers. The CHAMELEON project is transferring these references to the European ambit. The innovations developed in this project are offering a fresh approach to exploiting the intelligent devices fitted to machine tools. The main idea is to equip the machines with a set of devices that can be automatically activated and offer the capacity to change the overall configuration and performance of the machine. That way, the machine acquires the capacity to adapt its configuration to contradictory conditions, depending on the features of the part to be machined or of the material; for example, roughing operations on hard steel, which require a rigid machine, as opposed to the high-speed machining of aluminium, which requires a fast machine with a high dynamic capacity. This approach means that a machine tool fitted with a range of intelligent mechatronic devices can be configured as if it were a different machine every time. That way the innovations developed in the project are giving rise to a new concept of chameleon-like machine. The partners in the CHAMELEON project have developed eleven new devices to provide machine tools with intelligent activity; these include an active damper to eliminate vibrations, a hydraulic actuator capable of compensating for the deformations in the structure of the machine, a magnetic levitation electro-spindle, an ongoing system to locate tool position by means of laser, and an artificial vision system for the automatic search for references in large parts. These devices allow machine-tool productivity to be increased because they eliminate the vibrations that currently prevent machining using higher rates of material removal. At the same time, the CHAMELEON innovations are increasing machine precision because the position of the machining tool tip is constantly controlled and the static deformations of the machines are compensated for. The devices developed will facilitate clamping, aligning and reference search in parts of different sizes and flexibilities, as well as the breaking up of stock in drilling operations, a common cause of problems in operations of this type. The result of this project is the competitive edge it will give to the European machine-tool sector as it will place it at the technological forefront as regards configuration flexibility. CHAMELEON allows the machines produced by European companies to be the first in being able to apply the adaptation concept depending on production needs. This is a tremendously interesting aspect not only for machinery manufacturers but also for end users, the companies which, thanks to the devices developed in the project, will be able to expand the range of manufacturing operations they will be able to undertake. According to Mikel Zatarain, head of Scientific Development at IK4-Ideko, “the IK4-Ideko and IK4-Tekniker centres have contributed with their previous knowledge and experience, and as a result of the project they have acquired know-how that allows them to address the needs of manufacturing companies and users of machine tools. That way the competitiveness of our companies is being increased and the scientific quality of the results obtained is being endorsed by the publication of papers in the most prestigious journals.”