Advances in digital technology are already making a significant impact on UK manufacturing. According to the independent ‘Made Smarter Review (2017)’, it’s estimated that the positive impact of faster innovation and adoption of innovative digital technologies could unlock over £455 billion for UK manufacturing over the next decade and create over 175,000 jobs.
Professor Robert Harrison (Professor of Automation Systems, WMG), explores whether we are really experiencing a fourth industrial revolution:
It’s important for all manufacturing companies to assess their ability to make their product for the right cost and with the right consistent quality and ask whether any of the latest manufacturing technologies could help them to do that.
Often labelled as the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, the integration of the latest digital technologies in manufacturing, offers a range of benefits. These include quality improvements, an increase in cost effectiveness, higher productivity, more consistency and greater flexibility.
It’s difficult to say whether we are really in the midst of another industrial revolution or just a very rapid evolution. From the early industries, business people have measured performance, so that they can improve. As we acquired the ability to measure multiple aspects of a business, we realised that if we could measure, we could monitor performance at all levels, and if we could measure performance, we could seek to improve it.
So, what we are seeing now is an unprecedented and accelerated pace of change within digital manufacturing. This is down to the availability of more powerful computers, cheaper and larger data storage solutions, faster and more reliable connectivity and cheaper and more accurate sensors.
As companies integrate digital manufacturing technologies, there are a number of stages that they can focus on in their journey. Manufacturers could find themselves at any stage of this journey depending on where the most pressing problem is thought to be.
These stages include digitally modelling an individual piece of kit in a factory to assess levels of efficiency and the creation of ‘digital twins’. (A digital twin is the digital simulation of a piece of kit in a factory or a manufacturing process). Another stage is joining individual pieces of kit up to look at the way the entire factory performs.
It’s not possible for many manufacturers to introduce digital technologies on a grand scale straight away but understanding which stage of the journey a company might need to focus on to start off with, could be the first important step towards digital transformation.
Click here to read about each stage of the digital manufacturing journey.
Professor Paul Jennings, Intelligent Vehicles Research Lead at WMG, talks about the commercial opportunities for intelligent vehicles in the UK.
What's your definition of 'intelligent vehicles'?
'Intelligent vehicles' is a catch-all title for our research because we work on connectivity in vehicles; we work on automation in vehicles; and we work on projects that don't involve either. For instance, intelligence in a vehicle could be a way to achieve improved comfort and convenience features or to improve energy management.
What are the main markets for intelligent vehicles? Cars? Trucks? Public transport?
We're talking all of the above. It's important to remember that the market for intelligent vehicles isn't just so that people can move around more safely, comfortably and conveniently. It's about moving goods, too. Whatever market WMG is working in, however, it has to make sure it's here to solve problems and create new opportunities for customers and for our industry partners. Our role is to help UK companies exploit the significant emerging business opportunities through collaborative research, and through provision of new skills and education programmes.
Who are the main players in the intelligent vehicles market?
It's interesting because things have moved beyond traditional automotive companies now. At WMG, we do work with traditional companies and their supply base, of course; but there are new types of designer-manufacturers on the scene too. For example, in low-speed autonomous transport there are companies such as Aurrigo — the autonomous vehicle division of RDM Group — which designs and manufactures low-speed driverless pods here in Coventry. It is also important that we work with other key sectors too, such as wireless communications, simulation and transport infrastructure. Collaboration with authorities such as Transport for West Midlands is also crucial.
What are the main commercial drivers for companies in the intelligent vehicles space?
I'd put safety at the top of the agenda because, first and foremost, everyone wants to be safe. Then there are lower emissions and better energy efficiency. I don't think we can necessarily expect intelligent vehicles to reduce congestion, but they should be able to give us much better estimates about journey times. Also, there's a chance to make different modes of transports work better together — for example improving links between road and rail.
How can UK companies best take advantage of the commercial opportunities they identify?
The Midlands Future Mobility environment we, and our consortium partners, are creating is very exciting and will give real advantages to UK companies. It's going to be a place where they can come to trial their new vehicles, technologies and services in the real world, with proper public and user-engagement. That's a great opportunity for them to learn more from trials, and have the process made easier for them. It's also good for the Midlands which will experience those new technologies and services earlier than everyone else.
How do you see commercial opportunities developing in the future?
I think the whole supply chain will change dramatically. There will be an increasing importance on software, sensors, perception systems and connected components. But I think, over time, business models will change more dramatically as transport becomes more of a mobility-focused service industry, with customers buying 'journeys' rather than 'vehicles'.
As an Associate Professor in Sustainable Materials and Manufacturing, I’m involved with a lot of truly amazing projects. Most recently, I’ve been supervising a brilliant PhD student from Brazil, Felipe Fernandes.
Felipe’s PhD focused on working out how to turn waste oil, something that is currently converted to biodiesel, into composite materials. Waste oil is often disposed of down drains and contributes to the ‘fatbergs’ we have seen featured in the news in recent years. They pose a big problem for water companies, as it costs time, money and effort to remove them from our drains. The most common source of waste oil in the UK is from kitchens and includes fats, greases, vegetable oils, etc.
Severn Trent says up to 70% of blockages in sewers are caused by fatbergs, so by developing a polymer with industrial value, we can deal with this problem effectively and add real value in the process.
The source of oil chosen has to be easily accessible and local. We chose an abundant waste cooking oil (a blend of rapeseed oil and palm oil) from the University’s Café Library! Whilst we’ve used one particular blend for consistency, the process we’ve developed is also applicable to any blend of waste cooking oil.
First, the oil needed cleaning, so Felipe had to decide what filters to use and which impurities were acceptable in an oil-based polymer.
Next came the cleaning process itself. We took techniques from the biodiesel industry and adapted them to deal with the specific challenges of cooking oil like removing burnt batter and food. These all need to be filtered out.
Once cleaned, Felipe could focus on converting the oil into a polymer called an epoxy. We know we can make anywhere up to 100% waste oil-based epoxy, and we can tune the mixture to find the right blend to achieve the desired properties at the end.
In terms of major barriers, we didn’t really face any - this is one of the only PhD projects ever to have run relatively smoothly!
Felipe’s polymer hasn’t been used yet, but we think it will play a part in non-structural components of cars. Similar parts are used in the new BMW i3. It also has potential applications in crash structure elements - crumple zones inside bumpers etc., where the waste oil composite actually performs better than conventional materials!
What we have learnt here is applicable more widely and we will be working with other companies to develop this work further.
The PhD was funded by Science Without Borders, an initiative from the Brazilian Government and the National Council for Science and Technological Development (CNPq) They funds scholars to travel abroad, learn from institutions and bring back their new skills to Brazil. CNPq covered Felipe’s stipend, tuition fees and a budget for consumables.
Although plastic is often thought of as a single use material, it actually lasts a very long time and can be used over and over again. In the UK around 45% of plastic is recycled and 30% is incinerated to generate electricity. The remaining 25% goes to landfill - wasting the value of the material, and causing the environmental impact we are all currently talking about. Although the UK has made enormous strides in reducing this amount over the past 20 years, we are a long way behind other countries that don’t send any waste to landfill, like Germany, Norway or the Netherlands.
Levels of Recycling
A 45% recycling rate sounds good, but its effectiveness is all about how much of the value of the product is re-used.
The most effective recycling is where the product is used in the same form for the same use.
Next comes the plastic being re-used – effectively as virgin material – to produce products of the same value. The problem is that plastic materials are often down-cycled into less valuable products because waste streams often contain many different types of plastic and mixtures of plastics mostly have inferior properties to pure plastics. For recycling to become more efficient, waste collection and separation systems must be improved. Products could also be designed for their whole lifecycle - including recycling.
If the plastics cannot be re-used, the plastic can be broken down into its chemical building blocks and re-used at that level.
Why Incineration isn’t so bad
There are positive aspects to recovering energy from plastics through incineration, especially in the case of mixed or contaminated plastics that are difficult to recycle. Plastics are made from petrochemicals which are produced by the oil refining process. Plastics contain the same amount of energy as the oil they are made from and after a useful life they can be safely incinerated and converted into energy or electricity.
We need a systems approach
There is a complex problem to solve with plastics and a simple blanket ban may not be the answer if we want to create a more sustainable society. The solution could lie in a steep increase in recycling rates and the creation of a ‘circular economy’ where plastic materials are more effectively recycled at higher value uses.
Waste prevention, for example through use of less materials, is the preferred waste management option. It is followed by waste reduction through, for example reuse followed by recycling, recovery including incineration with energy recovery or compositing and as a last option, safe disposal.
Mark Swift, Head of our SME Programmes and Robert Harrison Professor of Automation Systems, talk to New Manufacturing about the digital futures and the challenges posed by Industry 4.0.
WMG has always stood for championing innovation that will have a real-world impact in industry. When it comes to Industry 4.0 that mission is no different.
Since its establishment in 1980, WMG has sought to add value to industry through the development of innovative technologies and the fostering of new skills. A department of the University of Warwick, WMG has successfully brought an academic rigour to the tackling of real world industrial problems.
It should be no surprise therefore that WMG is leading research into many facets of Industry 4.0 practice. As an academic department, applied research group, and host of one of the UK's seven High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult Centres, WMG is instrumental in developing tools and methods to prepare industry for a digitised future. Projects vary from the wholly commercial, in which WMG is funded by a particular company; to matched funded (part government, part private sector) initiatives organised by bodies such as Innovate UK or the Advanced Propulsion Centre; to the research-orientated end of the spectrum where projects may be funded entirely through the national or European research councils.
We have all experienced first-hand how easy it is to perform a routine task rather than a new one. The repetition allows us to gain all the skills needed to accomplish it, and the opportunity to learn smarter ways to complete it. Looking for similarities and addressing them in the same way is a simple form of resource management. Companies could apply the same principle to increase productivity too, but they often miss the opportunity.
The Infrastructure industry is a good example. Infrastructure companies build the fundamental facilities and systems serving countries. They operate by projects, and for each one they have to perform a set of repetitive activities such as design, purchase of material, and construction. Each project is considered unique, and therefore these companies repeat the same each time to recreate supply chains or purchase a set of materials. Doing this can result in project overruns and low productivity. What these companies haven't recognised is that there is a simple underlying, repetitive level of demand within each project. Therefore, they should look for similarities and address them in the same way to save time and effort.
In conjunction with Costain Concentra we have explored ways in which the effectiveness and efficiency of infrastructure portfolios could be improved. The objectives were to identify the repetitive and predictable levels of demand in projects, and the development of tailored supply chain strategies.
Dementia is not an ordinary part of ageing. Dementia has now replaced ischemic heart disease as the leading cause of death in the UK and represents the growing problem linked to our ageing population. There are over 850,000 people with the condition in the UK alone. This means that more and more of us are affected by dementia either as someone with the condition or someone with friends or family with the condition. Although dementia is caused through specific physiological changes to the brain that are increasingly well understood, there is not yet a cure for the condition. This means that managing the condition and enabling people to live well with the symptoms is very important.
What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimers disease?
Dementia is an umbrella term that describes a variety of conditions. The four most common types of dementia are Alzheimers disease, Vascular, Lewy body and Frontotemporal dementia. There are also many other less prevalent types, as well as mixed dementias.
Recently I was invited to a roundtable discussion on the future of the smart factory. It was couched in terms of Industry 4.0 and majored on the disruptive nature of the changes facing companies in the manufacturing sector. I was asked to lead the discussion by talking about my experiences.
Throughout my career, I have observed that people like to talk about disruption and step-change, but I'm not sure they are as good as predicting them as they like to think. Big changes do happen but, in my experience, we only recognise them with hindsight. And often step change is code for a steep learning curve and a reason not to act. The main reason for predicting them I have seen seems to be that it tends to unlock large amounts of funding from people scared of the change!
Manufacturing is the word used to describe how we turn raw materials into products on a large scale. Given that most products are complex assemblies of components and sub-assemblies, most start-to-finish manufacturing processes comprise many companies in a supply chain, but it is, for the most part, a very physical activity.
Back in early May, the CBI held its annual conference at the University of Warwick. Alongside the plenary sessions, there were two workshop, one on digital skills and one on innovation. From what I saw, the innovation workshop ended up being mainly about the skills needed to be innovative, as many participants said they couldn't be innovative because they did not have the right skills in their organisation. There seemed to be an assumption that if only they could access those skills, life would be easier.
Skill is one of those words that has morphed its definition in recent times. The dictionary definition of the word is the ability to do something well. The important word seems to be the last one. But the focus of discontent seems to be on adding new skills to an organisation.
Every organisation must have some skills. They would not be able to start unless they had the skill of identifying a problem, the skill of envisaging a solution, the skill of raising money, the skill of assembling a workforce and so on. How well they apply these skills will determine how successful they are, but they do seem to have them at some basic level.
Not everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up, and manufacturing probably isn't the expected career choice for most 15 year old girls; but in the 1980s Japanese manufacturing was at its pinnacle, and I was fascinated by it. Attending an "Insight into Engineering" course at Brunel University while I was in the sixth form only cemented my decision.
I was fortunate to be accepted onto a sponsored programme with ICI at 18, where a pre-university year allowed me to gain a basic grounding in engineering skills, plus the promise of summer placements in the future. Those of us on the programme started in the ICI workshops at the same time as the 16 year-old apprentices, and I remember that we were all given the same speech; even though we were taking different routes, our paths would cross in the future. This showed there wasn't just the one standard route for our careers, which I feel is really important to impress upon both young people and employers today.
After being accepted onto a four-year MEng in Mechanical Engineering, Manufacturing and Management at The University of Birmingham, I continued to take summer placements with ICI. A year at Nanzan University, Japan, with two company internships, only further reinforced my conviction that manufacturing was for me, even though I was the only female engineer there.