Developing bespoke alloys
James Evans on creating luxury high end bespoke jewellery to developing bespoke alloys at SaMI.
I operate the vacuum induction furnaces (VIM) and hot rolling machinery in SaMI’s pilot lab creating and developing bespoke alloys. Our primary focus was the steel industry but we are now melting other metals and materials.
Melting and rolling materials
I worked in the manufacturing sector for 18 years, with the majority in the jewellery industry where I spent 16 years optimising processes, creating handmade bespoke jewellery for customers or creating 3d wax models that could be cast into precious metal products.
When people think of jewellery, they normally think of rings, bracelets, necklaces and pendants but we were creating unique creations like 3d guitars, octopuses with movable legs, 3d tank cufflinks – I once created a millennium falcon pendant.
There isn’t a huge leap to what I’m doing now. We’re using the same processes here at SaMI. I used to melt gold, silver and platinum and I would still have to roll it and pickle it. I’d be creating the products from start to finish. It was a great industry to work in to acquire a good skillset and mindset for processes found throughout the whole manufacturing industry. Our SaMI capabilities are just a bigger version of what I used to do.
The jewellery industry is a real mix of new innovative technologies and the old established techniques using archaic machinery. We have a machine here in SaMI that’s from 1946 – some of the jewellery machinery I was working with were older than that, but we also had all the modern technology like 3d printing, 3d scanners and laser welders so we could reverse engineer say an antique ring and make adjustments to repair wear and tear.
Refining elements for industry
My role involves continuously learning about the metals we’re creating. The academic based research makes this possible. We melt and process rolled sheets of metal samples and pass those to SaMI’s characterisation department who give us analysis that enables us to see if we’ve hit our targets in the final composition of the steel. This is fascinating because we see how well we’ve done, whether we’ve hit the percentage of elements required within that steel composition.
With steel the mechanical properties are going to change depending on the percentage of elements. All the materials you put in have different benefits to how the steel performs when products are created for different industries such as automotive, packaging, transport, or defence.
We’re adjusting those elements for our customers to reach the ultimate percentage that gives their steel the properties it needs for optimum performance in its products. I have the opportunity to then go back and revisit the process, to refine and roll more materials to get it right, as opposed to just passing the samples back to the customers at that stage.
This is the difference between working in academia as opposed to in industry. It ties in with the university’s core principles that ‘we care’. And we do. If you’re innovating, you want to understand why something isn’t working, which is what we try to do.
There’s a genuine collaborative approach to find the answers. We want to know why and get solutions to be successful. The whole culture in SaMI is positive, the attitude, that positive drive forward. Understanding why something isn’t working and that you can make changes to make it better. And in doing so, deliver real, practical solutions for industry.
I’m improving my knowledge as an operator all the time, looking at how the elements are reacting, having a better understanding of the characterisation analysis and mechanical properties of the materials. We refine our process based on the feedback we get back from the other departments, allowing us to problem solve quicker to become better at what we do.
I enjoyed working in the jewellery industry, but I wanted a change. What we’re doing here is important work. We’re trying to decarbonise a highly pollutant industry for the good of the planet. That is a real pull for me. I always liked the idea of working in academia and working at SaMI is a good opportunity for me in research and development for something I feel is important.
It’s very obvious at the moment we are destroying our planet beyond repair and the percentage of carbon emissions coming from industry is a huge contributor to that. Knowing I’m playing my part in a very important machine is important to me, especially as I’m getting older. We all have a duty to do our part in protecting the planet for future generations.
Contributor James Evans