AMRC creates new industrial icon for Sheffield

14 January 2013

The University of Sheffield AMRC has completed production of a two metre model of a proposed landmark sculpture for the Sheffield city region.

The Man of Steel is the work of sculptor Steve Mehdi (pictured left with business partner Paul Blackburn), and was originally created as a 30cm bronze figure. It is designed to pay tribute to South Yorkshire's long history of steel and coal industries, while also reflecting the region's 21st century strengths in advanced manufacturing and metals technology.

"Man of Steel was inspired by the men and women I worked with in engineering in Sheffield, and the generations of people who worked in steel and coal across the region," says Mehdi. "The inspiration for a landmark version of the sculpture came from local people who first saw the sculpture in an exhibition of my work and said 'This could be our Angel of the North'."

The proposed 30 metre sculpture will feature a 20 metre stainless steel figure sat on a 18 metre coal-black column. This future landmark will overlook the M1 motorway from a former landfill site a few miles north of the AMRC campus on the Advanced Manufacturing Park.

The project has received strong support from local businesses and universities. Mehdi was introduced to the AMRC for help with producing a large model of the Man of Steel to raise awareness of the project.

"This project honours the past and embraces the future, bringing together the heritage of the old industries and signposting the new technologies of the Sheffield city region," Mehdi says. "These rapid developments in design technology and manufacture are led by the University of Sheffield AMRC in Rotherham, so I am delighted that the AMRC has used its expertise to create this version of the Man of Steel."

John Halfpenny, manufacturing engineer at the AMRC with Boeing Composite Centre, managed production of the model Man of Steel. "This was a totally different project to our usual work in the Composite Centre - it's nothing like what we've done before," Halfpenny says. "But it's good to work on a project that's potentially going to be in Sheffield for the next 200 years."

The model is made from polyurethane resin board, a material normally used for creating prototypes and models of automotive and aerospace structures. This was sculpted on the AMRC Composite Centre's CMS five-axis machining centre, using cutting tools from Sheffield-based Technicut.

Before production could begin, Mehdi's original small sculpture had to be turned into a computer model. Researchers in the Geometric Modelling and Pattern Recognition Group at Sheffield Hallam University used laser scanning technology to create a three-dimensional model, containing five million data points. Halfpenny then converted this data into the toolpath instructions that the computer-controlled machining centre needed to cut the model board to the precise shape.

"The scanning data were good and well put together, so it was a simple matter to scale that up," Halfpenny says. "We had to use the raw data to get all the surface detail, and manipulate that to produce the toolpaths. Working with the raw data from a scanned model wasn't something I'd done before, and I did learn a lot which we can now apply to other projects."

Halfpenny also had to work out how the complex human figure could best be machined. The original plan was to create the entire figure in one or two parts, but further modelling showed that this would be impractical.

"It would have been very difficult to machine in one because of the complex shape of the sculpture - we'd have problems holding it in the machine because everything is contoured, and it would require a lot of undercuts," says Halfpenny. "For example, there's no way we could have cut under his chin unless we cut his head off."

Splitting the figure into many smaller parts also meant that the work could be scheduled in between commercial research work at the Composite Centre. The final figure was produced in eight parts over several months.

Update, 9 April: The assembled model was given a stainless metal coating at Snuff Mill Body Shop in Sheffield, before returning to the AMRC Composite Centre to be mounted on a two metre column made by Tool and Steel Products.

The finished model will be on show at the AMRC Knowledge Transfer Centre during the Global Manufacturing Festival conference on 18 April. The Festival commemorates the centenary of stainless steel's discovery by Sheffield metallurgist Harry Brearley.

The Man of Steel will play an important role in promoting education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem). "Education experts across the region are working with the Man of Steel project team to develop curriculum material across all key stages," Mehdi says. "The AMRC Man of Steel will appear at various exhibitions throughout the year, promoting our industrial heritage, the new technologies and Stem education for the future."

After the Festival, the Man of Steel will go on to exhibitions at the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham and Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield.

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