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FLEXITOOL Report Summary

Project ID: 261925
Funded under: FP7-SME
Country: United Kingdom

Final Report Summary - FLEXITOOL (Flexible Tooling for the manufacture of free-form architectural cladding and façades)

Executive Summary:
The FlexiTool project (Flexible Tooling for the manufacture of free-form architectural cladding and façades, FP7-2010-SME) is an SME-targeted project developed in the 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission. The FlexiTool focuses on development of a digitally controlled variable geometry tooling and implantation market for manufacture of 3D architectural panels in high performance composites for the construction industry.

All the tasks and relevant objectives in the following for the period from 1 October 2010 to 30 September 2012 described in the Description of Work of Annex I (DoW) have been completed as planned and achieved as schedules.
* To analyses individual end-user needs and demands for the digitally FlexiTool technology; (in Task 1.1)
* To study the deformation mechanism of multi-point mould-less thermo-forming and die-less casting; (in Task 1.2)
* To explore capabilities of controlled variable geometry tooling for fabrication of architectural panels; (in Tasks 1.3)
* To define specification of FlexiToool tooling system and refine requirements of industrial SMEs. (in Task 1.4)
* To design variable geometry tooling and develop computer software for modelling and simulation; (in Tasks 2.1 and 2.2)
* To build a novel and efficient digitally controlled variable geometry tooling; (in Task2.2)
* To develop robotic control techniques for reconfigurable vacuum thermo-forming processes; (in Task 2.3)
* To integrate the built variable geometry tooling with computer software and robotic control unit; (in Task 3.1)
* To test the integrated multi-point thermo-forming tooling with typical geometric surfaces in thermoplastic PC and PVC; (in Task 3.2)
* To validate the software interface and experimental results in case study for further demonstration; (In Task 3.3)
* To demonstrate the FlexiTool system for thermo-forming doubly curved cladding panels in medium-size sheets of PMMA (in Task 4.1)
* To demonstrate the FlexiTool system for thermo-forming doubly curved cladding panels in full-size sheets of PMMA (in Task 4.2)
* To evaluate of the technical and economic potentials of the developed FlexiTool system using the results and feedback from demonstration with SMEs; (in Task 4.3)
* To improve the professional development of the personnel concerned through training activities; (in Task 5.1)
* To create and update the FlexiTool wibsite (i.e. or with project information and project progress; (in Task 5.2)
* To widely disseminate information on the problems to be addressed, the existence of the project and its results and achievements, through effective multimedia dissemination material; (in Task 5.2)
* To raise public awareness of anticipation and facilitate through joining and presenting international conferences and technical exhibition with technical papers, presentations, formed sample panels and tooling prototype; (in Task5.3)
* To promote and exploit the project results through interviewing industrial end-users and high-tech SMEs, organizing research seminars and joining forum; (in Tasks 5.4)
* To draft a deliverable of patent search research report after carrying out patent searching via professional agency; (in Task 5.5)
* To coordinate and manage the project activities in administrative, technical and financial terms; (in Task 6.1)
* To provide a communication medium between the project participants and the Commission; (in Task 6.2)
* To assure the quality of the project outcomes; (in Task 6.3)
* To maintain, update and follow with the consortium agreement. (in Task 6.4)

Through RTD activities in the WP1, the fundamentals of reconfigurable MPF methodology and explore the capabilities of reconfigurable fabrication tooling technology for architectural panels have been studied and explored. The systematic analysis of individual SME/end-user demands and theoretical analysis of the mechanism of reconfigurable MPF has been carried out for mould-less thermoforming applications.
Through RTD activities in the WP2, a novel and efficient FlexiTool prototype machine with CAD/CAE/CAT software automatic robotic control techniques based on the principles of reconfigurable MPF has been fully designed and fully fabricated.
Through RTD activities in the WP3, the built variable tooling has been integrated with computer software and robotic control unit. The integrated FlexiTool system has been used for the first test for thermo-forming typical surface panels in thermoplatic PC and PVC. The software interface and thermo-formed samples have been validated as case study for demonstration and exploitation.
Through DEMO activities in the WP3, the 3D complex architectural cladding panels in medium- and full-size sheets of thermoplastic PMMA have been thermo-formed with the integrated FlexiTool system. The thermo-formed cladding pannels have been validated with industrial SMEs using laser scanner/digital camera to measure the profile and geometric accuracy.
Through activities of training, dissemination and exploitation in the WP5, the achieved RTD results of the project have been demonstrated in public website, international conferences and publications.
Through management activities in the WP6, all the management aspects of the project and the monitoring of project progress towards the ultimate objectives have been carried out by the coordinator with the helps of other consortium members.

During period of the first nine months, six beneficiaries of three RTD performers and three SME participants involved in four WPs of WP1, WP2, WP5 and WP6. Five tasks of T1.1, T1.2, T1.3, T1.4 and T2.2 have been completed as planed, nine D1.1,D1.2, D1.3, D2.1, D5.1, D6.1, D6.2, D6.3 and D6.4 have been submitted to the EC on time, and four milestones of MS1, MS2, MS7 and MS8 have been successfully reached.
During period of the last sixteen months,thirteen deliverables (D2.2, D2.3, D3.1, D3.2, D4.1, D4.2, D5.2, D5.3, D5.4, D5.5, D6.5 and D6.6 and patent search report) have been submitted to the EC on time, and four milestones of MS3, MS4, MS5 and MS6 have been successfully reached.
Project Context and Objectives:
The FlexiTool project focuses on development of a digitally controlled variable geometry tooling and implantation market for manufacture of 3D architectural panels in high performance composites for the construction industry. The main advantageous features of FlexiTool prototype are rapid, universal, sustainable and cost-effective with high reconfigurablity compared with present thermoforming using dedicated solid mould or fixed hard dies. It is the aim of FlexiTool to empower digitally flexible tooling technology with a clear focus on immediate industrial exploitation in construction and building, and to drive the development of reconfigurable tooling for the benefit of SME participants leading to new processes. There are no such product of mouldless thermoforming tooling available on globe market. FlexiTool will play a key role in realising the full potential of reconfigurable tooling by combining innovative multi-point forming (MPF) technology with robotic control technology.

The industrial and scientific breakthrough objectives of the project are:
(1) Fundamental exploitation of FlexiTool machine using multi-point forming methodology for manufacturing curved cladding and facade composite panels.
This will lead to realise rapid mouldless thermoforming of thermoplastic cladding and facade panels.
(2) Solution of the key technological problems of FlexiTool machine.
This will lead to develop FlexiTool manufacturing cell compositing multiple active actuators to replace the traditional fixed moulds.
(3) Build of the integrated the integrated computer software interface and robotic control devices.
This will lead to the digital optimisation of deformation and the automatic controlling of a FlexiTool machine.
(4) Development, demonstration and implantation of FlexiTool manufacturing cell.
This will lead to reduce tooling costs by 70%, cut set-up time by 60% and eliminate the need for tooling storage significantly and the quick tooling adaptation to architecture design or changes.

The main objective of the present project is to develop and apply the Multi-Point Themmo-Forming Tooling (MPPTFT) technologies in European construction industries. It is the aim of FlexiTool to empower reconfigurable MPF tooling technology with a clear focus on ndustrial applications in architectural and civil engineering structures for the benefit of three European ME participants (ADA, IOTA and ROBOTNIK).
Project Results:
The FlexiTool project intends to research and develop reconfigurable multi-point thermoforming tooling. Currently, a trend of digital manufacturing implementation in construction and civil engineering is to develop advanced fabrication techniques and novel equipments for building fabrication and assembly, which are flexible, cost-effective, affordable, economical and reusable. The project has an ambition of augmenting competitive capacity of European SME industries in global market of contemporary building and rapid manufacturing by promoting the advanced multi-point thermo-forming technologies.

The detailed FlexiTool project results and know-how related to the individual work packages and participants are specified in the following, which includes project-generated knowledge and expected IPRs arising from the work.

R1: Know-how package of FlexiTool project - Planning and design of exterior cladding and façades, thermoform molding with reconfigurable tooling, and automation of fabrication tooling;
R2: Mouldless multi-point thermoforming FlexiTool technologies - Surface modeling technology of freeform architectural panels, moudless thermoforming techniques with flexible tooling, and robotic control technology for thermo-fabrication;
R3: Configuration of FlexiTool manufacturing cell - Drawings of 3D geometric models, fabrication machine, and control system;
R4: Mechanical mechanism of FlexiTool machine prototype including actuator matrix, supporting frame and adjustment carriage - Tooling punch of discrete surface, element group of thermoforming, and changeable tooling adjustment;
R5: CAD software of FlexiTool cell for 3D surface modelling and software interface - 3D modeling of freeform surfaces, thermo-fabrication tooling, and computer control;
R6: CAE software of FEM simulation for FlexiTool process - Finite element models of 3D workpieces, deformation models of thermoplastic blanks, and control model of fabrication tooling;
R7: Low-level control system including hardware of robotic control system - communication unit of surface data, driven unit of adjustable tooling, and card unit of robotic control;
R8: High-level control system including software of computer control system - Interface ofout data, optimized parameters of thermo-fabrication, and program code of computer control.

With multi-point forming (MPF) technique, traditional mould tools would be replaced by adjustable punch matrix, called Mould-less forming tooling. The position of each punch can be numerically controlled independently. While all the punches are adjusted to their desired height, the tips of the punches approximate a discrete surface of three-dimensional (3D) tooling shape. The MPF tooling would be used in the thermoforming of thermoplastic sheet parts to take place of fixed moulds. During the thermoforming, the punch of matrix is mounted on the vacuum press. Due to its easy reconfiguration and rapid flexibility, it is a universal tool for manufacturing 3D panels. The obvious advantage over conventional tooling is the reduction in time and cost of design, fabrication, storage and changes of dedicated mould tool.

The FlexiTool prototype of Multi-Point ThermoForming Tooling (MPTFPT) system comprises the hardware and software. The hardware includes the mechanical mechanism and low & high level computer control system. The software includes CAD/CAE/CAT platform and low & high level control software. The CAD software will be used to model the multi-point thermoforming process with panel data and to calculate the position of each punch. The CAE software will be used to simulate the multi-point thermoforming process with data output by CAD software and analyze the deformation and the stress distribution. The CAT software will be use to calibrate the position of each punch for operation of MPTFT.

The Control System for MPTFT will consist of a sub-system composed by:
(i). A control computer unit, dedicated to the operator interface and to the generation of the control signals for the motor driver.
(ii). A driver assembly unit composed by the set of motor driver to be controlled.

The Control Computer Unit shall be equipped with an Ethernet LAN connection for an easy exchange of the PUN files generated by CAD/CAE software. PUN file generated by CAD component, mainly contains all the heights at which each punch has to be regulated to with the regulation that have to be applied to the multi-point thermoforming tooling in order to manufacture specific panels. The PUN files shall contain all the setting required for the setup of the punch groups. The PUN file contains also data related to the physical layout of element groups and of their punches. Such data are not strictly related to the High-Level Control System, but since the program is the main interface to the operator in the workshop, such information are useful to assemble/verify the configuration of the flexible modular group layout.
The Driver Assembly Unit shall be mainly composed by the driver units. Control signal will be bi-directionally exchanged with the CCU, including:
(i). Motor motion signals (pulses)
(ii). Motor direction/rotation command
(iii). Movement stop switch

The high-level control unit is a software component developed to apply the data generated by the FlexiTool CAD application to the tooling mechatronics via the low-level driver. Data are computed to properly support panel of a defined shape.The high-level control unit implements the following functions, all accessible through the application main menu in Computer Aided Translation (CAT) software.
(i) The “Tooling Control” function allows the transfer of all the settings of the PUN file to the corresponding actuated punches (“Set all forming elements...”) and to perform additional control on the forming elements.
(ii) The height of each punch element can be checked and modified manually, and also each punch can be adjusted manually if necessary. If there is no error, the height of all punches is adjusted by the computer control unit through field bus automatically.
Potential Impact:
The main objective of FlexiTool is the development and application of digitally controlled variable geometry tooling using reconfigurable MPF methodology to develop a commercialized machine for manufacturing free-form (3D compound curved) panels for architectural and civil engineering structures in the building and construction industry. The project will develop a unique FlexiTool manufacturing cell, at the heart of which is a large modular robotic MPF machine to provide an alternative to traditional fixed tooling for the manufacture of thermoplastic and composite cladding and facade panels. The FlexiTool machine is a computer controlled machine which changes its own surface geometry to conform to the 3D CAD data supplied by the architect and the material requirements. FlexiTool manufacturing cell will enable rapid, reliable and cost-effective manufacturing of architectural panels in building with digitally controlled variable geometry tooling. Today there is no such manufacturing system of this type available on the market.

The FlexiTool project is centred on the great economic interest of SME participants. The cost benefits of FlexiTool derive from making the current fixed tooling practice redundant, the elimination of the time consuming, costly manufacture and waste of sacrificial solid moulds. These costs currently represent a major proportion of any production process in mould thermoforming and die casting and would be completely eliminated by the adoption of the FlexiTool machine.The FlexiTool project aims at strengthening the research capabilities, competitiveness and innovation capacity of the SME participants in the field of architectural façade fabrication, building construction and civil engineering and at contributing to an overall continued improvement in their industrial competitiveness across the European Union. The project will provide contributions to impacts on SME developments of at the European level. The underlying economic premise of the FlexiTool project is that an investment in a sophisticated and capital intensive machine proves to be significantly more cost effective, and environmentally sound, over time than multi-million Euros worth of discarded single-use fixed tooling over the same period.

FlexiTool consortium has organised various activities to raise public participation and awareness:
(i). Newsletter articles have been distributed widely;
(ii). Three public events have be organised to raise public awareness and obtain technical feedback(Steel-Forum 2010, AERODAYS2011, Metal Forming course at Oulu University);
(iii) Two FlexiTool websites (i.e., have established for the promotion of multi-point tooling technology;
(iv). Three participants have introduce their involvement in the project to their own websites (i.e.;;;
(v). The consortium members have attend relevant workshops, seminars and conferences (such as, CEABM 2011, ICTP2011 and ESAFORM2012), and disseminate research results to various relevant journals on topics of computer-controlled manufacturing, rapid prototyping tooling and innovative thermoplastic cladding/facacde fabrication;
(vi). FlexiTool has establish close links with other EU projects and take advantage of the participants’ existing EU projects (such as FP7-ICT SRS).

List of Websites:

Coordinator: Prof. Rossi Setchi, School of engineering, Cardiff University (email:
Address: Queen's Building, The Parade, Newport Road, Cardiff
Post Code: CF24 3AA
Tele: 02920879065

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