High-tech facilities for all

Innovative SMEs gain access to Field Lab

The Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) has renamed and repositioned its modernized ACM3 Field Lab (pronounced as ‘ACM Cubic’), with the aim of attracting more Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). This well-equipped, state-of-the-art field laboratory makes high-tech equipment available for the development of light-weight products. In this way, ACM3 enables everyone to pursue successful innovation.

We provide the equipment, they supply the expertise

The purpose of ACM3 (Field Lab for Automated Composites, Metal Manufacturing and Maintenance) is to support companies in the development of light-weight systems made of composite materials and/or metal. This support can be provided in nearly all phases of product development: from concept studies and material screening to preparing detailed designs and creating concepts. Repairs and full-scale prototyping are also carried out in the centre.

3D metal printing at NLR
NLR 3D C-scan facility

Bert Thuis heads NLR’s Structures Technology department and serves as the ‘ambassador’ for ACM3. He emphasizes that the modernized field laboratory is particularly keen to raise its profile among SMEs.

“Small, innovative companies can use our facilities to turn their ideas into reality. We make our equipment available, while the companies contribute their own specific product expertise.”

– Bert Thuis –

ACM3 is optimizing accessibility in various ways. For instance, a ‘menu’ of the available equipment has been prepared to provide quick insight into the facilities and their operation. This allows companies to discover at a glance what they can do at ACM3. Users can receive training or hire an NLR operator if the equipment is too complex for unassisted operation. During the production of a pilot run, for instance, users can receive training to ensure that properly qualified personnel is available when actual serial production starts at the customer site.

One recent achievement illustrating the potential of ACM3 is the successful development of PAL-V: the world’s first flying car production model, equipped with unique collapsible rotor blades. Designs for the composite rotor blades and propeller were developed and tested in the NLR Field Lab. The required manufacturing method was also developed here. The Field Lab has now become so well-known and accessible that even private users are keen to benefit from its facilities. One example is designer Marleen Kaptein, who uses ACM3 equipment to manufacture her unusual chairs.

Expansion of scope

The Field Lab has recently expanded its scope to include metal manufacturing and maintenance. The high-tech centre initially focused on the development and digitization of automated manufacturing processes for composite products. To support these developments, the Field Lab possesses state-of-the-art and well-equipped facilities for processing high-grade composite materials.

Composite products developed in the Field Lab are used in various industries, including the aerospace, automotive, maritime, medical and energy sectors (particularly wind energy). However, composite products are increasingly made of other materials besides just fibre-reinforced plastics. Combinations of composites and metals are also frequently used. Automation, flexibilization and digitization of the production process play an increasingly important role in the manufacturing of these metal components.

These trends prompted NLR to integrate the facilities for composite materials and metal processing, and to expand them with equipment for 3D metal printing.

The Field Lab also added maintenance services to its offerings (the third ‘M’ in the name ACM3) in order to meet the rising demand for maintenance-related test facilities.

Affordable prototypes

The combination of state-of-the-art equipment for the processing of high-grade composite products and expertise in the operation of this equipment and in composite materials is unique in the Netherlands. ACM3 is also garnering increasing attention abroad.

The centre particularly offers benefits for SMEs. Without any requirement for major investments, they can join forces with NLR and use the equipment available at ACM3 to work on the development of new light-weight products and the required manufacturing technologies. This process can start with ‘proof of concepts’ that are eventually developed into full-scale prototypes.

Another benefit is the ability to postpone capital investments until there is more certainty about the commercial potential of the product. The facilities at ACM3 enable companies to delay the ordering of production equipment until there is greater certainty of a successful market introduction. In order to bridge the intervening period and maintain market momentum, companies can use ACM3 equipment to produce the initial pilot runs. This enables costly capital investments to be postponed until there are sufficient prospects of product sales, so that the much-feared ‘Valley of Death’ that affects many companies (particularly SMEs) can be avoided.

Affordable prototypes

Arena for acceleration

The unique development opportunities offered by ACM3 exert a magnetic influence on innovative companies. The test facilities have therefore been specially designed to serve companies wishing to establish themselves in the region.

NLR’s Oscar Zoeteweij is founder of DARE living lab: a brand-new ‘living lab’ that has now also been integrated into ACM3. DARE stands for ‘Development AREna’: an environment where companies can accelerate the realization of their ideas. This process of acceleration is driven not just by the facilities, but also by the accessibility of relevant networks and connections.

This set-up enables NLR’s high-end expertise to be applied as effectively as possible in the realization of new products, processes and services for the SME sector.

“With DARE, we are introducing a new way of thinking. More room for experimentation and a greater focus on co-creation will enable us to optimally utilize the expertise and strengths of all parties involved.”

– Oscar Zoeteweij –

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