Partnership research into automation aims to help firms to change and adapt following the financial meltdown
On one level, research into automation in the UK appears fragmented, with big blue-chip companies and universities carrying out this work, sometimes in alliances or as individuals. This is to be expected, as each company making its own product needs a bespoke automated system and so, naturally, research is carried out on a case-by-case basis.
Yet there seems to be no shortage of government-backed initiatives to help industry as a whole improve business, including taking on new forms of automation. This support can be put down to long-standing collaborations with the likes of Rolls-Royce reaching critical mass and a realisation within government, brought home by the financial crash, that manufacturing is worth backing to enable it to play a strong role in a diversified economy. So help is definitely out there for the small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the traditionally hard-to-reach firms that make up the bulk of UK manufacturing.
One of these initiatives, launched on July 1, is the Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Intelligent Automation at Loughborough University. Funded to the tune of £5m by the government-backed Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – a figure more than matched by industrial partners and the universities of Loughborough and Cranfield – the total budget for this five-year project is more than £10m.
Professor Mike Jackson, director of the Loughborough centre, explains its aims: “Essentially we’re trying to automate tasks and manufacturing processes that are currently only possible manually. They are possible to automate, but very difficult and expensive.”
The tasks rely on human judgment and range from polishing and inspection to dealing with tiny variations in a component during assembly. Ensuring that these tasks are carried out faultlessly is essential to quality in an end product and so, in most high value manufacturing industries, many are still carried out by hand.
A key research area for Jackson and his team, which includes people from Ford, Airbus and Rolls-Royce, will be to study exactly how people do this work. “Assessing human skill in detail will be incredibly important in learning about its limits and how to run automation systems side by side with people,” says Jackson.
In terms of spreading the word to smaller operations, the centre plans to invite in representatives of SMEs and take them through the full automation process, including a cost benefit analysis and a simulation of how a new shop floor would look. “The centre is commercially led but those companies want to make a difference to industry. If we weren’t helping UK plc, then at the end of our five years we’d be in trouble,” says Jackson.
Another project Jackson and Loughborough are involved in is the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), established last year. Set up at Ansty Park near Coventry by the universities of Loughborough, Nottingham and Birmingham and technology developer TWI, alongside Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Aero Engine Controls, the MTC has a £130m budget over ten years.
It aims to convert “innovative ideas from academia into practical manufacturing solutions” and intelligent automation is a core capability. For the growing number of companies involved, MTC offers a 12,000 sq metres space to trial machinery and ideas, in tie-ups with universities.
Putting a particular emphasis on aerospace is the £25m Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), set up near Rotherham by the University of Sheffield in alliance with Boeing. Jim Heley, head of assembly at AMRC, says its aim is also to fill the gap between research in universities and manufacturing operations. “We tend to sit in the middle. We’re not inventing in terms of development, but in application,” he says.
The needs of the aerospace industry have seen this work focused on refining automation. “Robots built for the automotive industry only need to be accurate to around 1mm. Aerospace needs tenfold that, really, down to about 100 microns,” says Heley. To tackle this, Heley’s team has taken an end unit with much greater control over movement of its tools and attached that to an existing robot. “We built that and proved it on our shop floor,” he says.
“We’ve also designed a novel drilling end effector which is very compact,” says Heley, adding that automation has huge potential to speed up drilling. Around half of the one million holes in a standard commercial aircraft are still drilled manually, he says.
Similar developments in automation technology will be needed when Heley’s newest neighbour, the Nuclear AMRC, opens in September: “A big part of that work will be on robots and the driver there is remote handling.”
Assistance in a similar vein will come from the first of the government’s technology and innovation centres (TICs). This is being overseen by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and will focus on High Value Manufacturing
“Assessing human skill in detail will be incredibly important in learning about its limits and how to run automation systems side by side with people,” says Jackson
Manufacturing consultant Peter Flinn, who is helping to establish the TIC for TSB, explains its remit: “We’ll be providing a level of core funding that enables people such as Mike Jackson to carry out research and then deploy it into industry. Industry has to be involved so commercial exploitation of this work is built in.”
In terms of involving SMEs, Flinn says there will be targets for the number of small firms the TIC will work with each year. Both the TIC and the MTC will employ an “outreach” manager to tackle this issue.
An existing source of advice for SMEs is the local government-funded Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), which offers up to two days of guidance free.
“We’re continually talking to companies about raising competitiveness and a part of that is considering robotics,” says Simon Griffiths, chief executive of the West Midlands MAS. Trying to borrow money for investment “can be a hard sell”, but refusals are not always down to the banks. “Sometimes companies haven’t put sensible business plans together,” says Griffiths, adding that help with writing a proposal, which explains the need for the cash, is also something MAS advisers can provide.
Neil Wilks writes about new technology, engineering and environmental issues. He contributes regularly to test and sensor technology magazine, Environmental Engineering.