Nikki Hilton is getting used to jibes about being able to ‘bore for England.’ The 23-year-old University of Sheffield postgraduate engineer is leading a research project that will transform the way key components in the nuclear industry are produced – virtually doubling the current record for drilling deep holes into stainless steel.
The challenge she has been set by her industry sponsors, Rolls-Royce, and by the head of the machining group at the Nuclear AMRC, Stuart Dawson, is to create a process that can not only drill to a depth of up to eight metres, but do so in a way that eliminates operator intervention.
‘We want a completely green button process with zero human intervention during the process,’ says Dawson. ‘That means we need some kind of drill steering method so it can travel eight metres down this hole and arrive at the other end within millimetres of its target.’
Hilton knows the bar has been set high but as one of the new generation of engineers – her father is a physicist and her grandfather was an engineer – she relishes the chance to push back the boundaries of the possible and to set new standards for high value manufacturing in the energy sector.
‘I am excited to be involved in a project that is going to make such a big change and a big impact. The current industry limit is to a depth of 300 times the diameter of the drill bit. We aim to push that to 500 and to make the process more efficient, accurate and consistent.’
She added: ‘What we are doing will have an immediate impact on the nuclear industry, and have applications for oil and gas. I was really attracted to the research because it will really make a difference when it is applied to industry and I find that very exciting.
‘The environment at the AMRC and the Nuclear AMRC is fantastic. Everyone is very enthusiastic about not only their own research but about all the other research going on around them. People are very keen to try new ideas and to think outside the box. The fact that there is such a deep pool of knowledge and experience to draw on makes the challenge a lot less daunting. We will have the support of the University, the AMRC, and also our industrial sponsor, Rolls-Royce, and this level of collaboration and cooperation gives us real confidence in what we are trying to achieve.’
This is a view shared by Hugo Lobato, the capability acquisition team leader for Rolls-Royce Civil Nuclear. He said: ‘Technology development in deep hole drilling for nuclear applications represents a once in a generation opportunity for the UK high value manufacturing industry. The collaboration between Rolls-Royce and the Nuclear AMRC will ensure that the project will challenge conventional manufacturing techniques and deliver a step change in the manufacture of components with large length-to-diameter ratios.’
Hilton is one of the first students to enrol in the University of Sheffield’s new Industrial Doctorate Centre (IDC) in Machining Science. A collaboration between the AMRC and the Faculty of Engineering, with the support of EPSRC and industrial partners, the IDC offers a four-year programme of fully funded training and research for up to 20 students per year.
Earlier this month Hilton and her team took charge of one of the largest machine tools in the UK – the TBT ML700 – and the largest piece of kit of its kind in any university. At 27 metres long, the machine tool is bespoke for this project and took two weeks to install in the new Nuclear AMRC building.