UK manufacturing, factories get smarter

28 February, 2013

Research at The University of Nottingham in the UK that could help the manufacturing industry to remain competitive by evolving to meet future challenges is in line for a multi-million pound funding boost.

The work being led by Professor Svetan Ratchev, Director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, has received two five-year research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) totalling £4.6 million.

The funding will support work being done to design the next generation of ‘smart’ manufacturing systems that will be able to continuously evolve to respond quickly to changes in product requirements, technology provision and market opportunities and will embrace the latest ICT developments in complex systems, data analytics and cloud computing to drive innovation.

The first project Evolvable Assembly Systems — Towards Open, Adaptable and Context-Aware Equipment and Systems, which has attracted an EPSRC grant of £2.2 million, will bring together unique research skills from across the University in collaboration with industrial heavyweights including Airbus, Astra Zeneca, BAE Systems and Siemens.

Assembly of final products in sectors such as automotive, aerospace, pharmaceutical and medical industries is a key production process in the UK. To respond to the current challenges, a radically-new approach towards the development of future assembly systems is needed to create systems that can respond to changes in demand with extremely short set-up times.

The systems would have the ability to self-repair, self-adapt and reconfigure to incorporate low-cost maintenance and the ability to upgrade with emerging new technologies.

Professor Ratchev said: "The research programme will deliver a new paradigm shift in adaptable and cost-effective manufacture that breaks with traditional approaches and is predicated on an innovative intertwining of Product-Process-Systems Evolution, Data Analytics, Knowledge Modelling, Emergence Engineering and Open Manufacturing.

"These pillars for a new extremely flexible and evolvable manufacturing infrastructure are expected to shed new insights on the self-configuration, self-organisation, self-adaptation and evolution of future production platforms.

"Together they will presage a game-changing strategy for industry’s ability to respond to and solve current and future societal grand challenges linked to retaining and expanding manufacturing operations in the UK."

The wider public will benefit from the research through the increased ability of organisations to respond to customer needs and to reduce product cost through the increased flexibility of manufacturing systems, as well as more rapid product development.

Manufacturing competitiveness increasingly depends on maximising the use of all available information and knowledge for the total product lifecycle — from design, production and use through to maintenance and recycling.

The second project Cloud Manufacturing — Towards a Resilient and Scalable High Value Manufacturing has received £2.4 million from the EPSRC and will focus on the concepts of ‘cloud manufacturing’, where a shared pool of data from design and manufacturing resources can be shared and readily accessed by users to improve manufacturing processes.

The research will be actively supported by world leading international companies including IBM, Airbus, ARM, HP, PA Consulting and DLA Piper LLP.

The multi-disciplinary research team from the University will use complex systems, cloud computing and crowdsourcing methods in a radical departure from existing manufacturing ICT. The advantages are that manufacturers can optimise processes, respond quickly to change and gain valuable data and knowledge from crowds. Crowds who could participate include manufacturing partners, designers, logistics partners and consumers.

The challenges will include understanding the resource base, how to incorporate customer and user intelligence and processing information securely on a service-oriented platform.

The research will lead to increased participation of UK small and medium-sized companies in global manufacturing networks, will allow longer-term strategic capital and infrastructure investment and will dramatically increase the use of available manufacturing resources and skills.

The new projects will contribute to the diverse research portfolio of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and further strengthen its position as a multidisciplinary international centre of excellence in manufacturing research. 

The funding comes as part of a £45 million package of investments in manufacturing research announced today by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science.

Speaking ahead of the BIS Manufacturing Summit on Thursday, Mr Willetts said: "The UK has a proud history of manufacturing but to build on this success industry needs access to the very latest science and technology. This £45 million package of investment will see our world-class research base investigating innovative new manufacturing equipment and techniques.

"This will support our industrial strategy in a range of important sectors, driving growth and keeping the UK ahead in the global race."

EPSRC’s Chief Executive Professor David Delpy said: "Our high labour costs combined with global competition mean that the future of UK manufacturing lies in being as smart as possible. The country has the scientific and engineering knowhow to not only develop new, valuable products, but the means to produce them more precisely, efficiently and to order. These research projects will help the country gear up for a future that can redefine manufacturing worldwide."