Looking To Atoms And Stars

A conceptual mockup of the CLASS telescopes (Image credit: José Francisco Salgado)

“We like questions that nobody else has answered,” said Richard Park, Managing Director of Sandvik’s Osprey unit.

“Though we’re not always asked to work on projects aimed at answering the fundamental question about the origin of the universe.”

He was referencing Sandvik’s recent contribution to the Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor, or CLASS telescopes that Johns Hopkins University,NASA, and other partners hope will detect “the faint afterglow of energy released during the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the universe’s existence” after the Big Bang. The company developed a controlled expansion alloy that could perform at 0.1 degrees Kelvin. (Absolute Zero is the point at which atoms literally freeze in place.)

The company has also provided a different alloy for the WIYN One Degree Imager visible light telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory, which operates at the some of the highest resolutions currently possible from terrestrial telescopes, according to Andrew Coleman, Sales Manager, Osprey Controlled Expansion Alloys.

“Nobody is going to build hundreds of these telescopes,” Park added.

“But there are thousands of industrial opportunities for similar performance tolerances and properties.”

Another innovation from Sandvik Osprey is the metal powder that it pioneered 12 years ago for a process then called rapid prototyping, and is now the raw material used by many of Sandvik’s customers as well as Sandvik’s Additive Manufacturing Center (“AMC”), just opened in Sandviken, Sweden, where applications for additive manufacturing are being explored (otherwise known as 3D printing).

“We are unique because we have our own powder capabilities,” explained Mikael Schuisky, manager of the AMC. “So we can focus on developing processes.” He added that powder production capabilities are vital to producing the high-quality parts that might end up in an airplane engine or hip replacement.

Unlike the telescope projects, most of the AMC’s work is focused on improving existing products, and then getting them to market quickly. It’s purposefully using existing small and medium-sized machines for its materials and process development, so its underlying technology platform can be easily replicated and scaled. Its staff comes from both inside and outside the organization, but maintains close contact with Sandvik’s operating units. Weekly meetings review and reprioritize projects.

Such activities compliment the innovation that is ongoing within the company.

“About one-fifth of our research is fundamental, and the rest is applied research based on customer needs,” said Olle Wijk, Sandvik’s EVP & Head of Group R&D. “The R&D managers from different businesses meet regularly to share ideas, and they work on common projects.”

A rigorous product development process informs those ideas and projects, including a business case approach that grounds opportunities in what’s possible with existing production capabilities, risk/reward ratios, and other KPIs.

“Otherwise there is a risk that R&D guys are too far away from the business, because they might not see the forest through the trees.”

“We are always planting seeds,” Park said of projects that are coming after the telescopes, though he declined to hint at what they might be.

“We are in the teenage years of additive materials,” Schuisky added.