A new national robotics research centre will receive a share of £25m to improve collaborative technology and help businesses unlock the full potential of automated industrial manufacturing.
The centre will bring together a team of world-class experts from Loughborough University, Cranfield University, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Warwick, and the University of Bristol, with experience in manufacturing, engineering, digital technology, robotics, human-factors, verification and safety, law, psychology, systems engineering, metrology, and ICT.
It also comprises of key organisations across core UK industrial sectors including aerospace, automotive, agri-food, green energy, construction, and space.
Project lead Dr Niels Lohse, of Loughborough’s Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering, said: “Automation increases productivity, safeguards manufacturing, creates and protects jobs.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for greater responsiveness and resilience. With disruptions to supply chains and workforce availability, collaborative robot sales more than doubled, but the UK remains significantly behind other highly industrialised nations.
“While there is a huge appetite for the benefits of industrial automation, its full potential remains untapped. The perceived and actual high initial investment cost for specialised, automation equipment is a significant barrier for wider adoption.
“The need for highly specialised skill sets limits the design, implementation, and maintenance of automation. Specialised equipment is often too inflexible particularly for SMEs with modifications being either too expensive or impractical. People and automation are separated by inflexible safety, regulatory, procedural, physical, and psychological barriers preventing effective collaboration.
“Bringing the automation community together will be essential for addressing the unique challenges faced by UK industry to unlock the full potential of their highly skilled workforce through automation and digital technology.”
The research centre will create a multi-disciplinary, cross-sectorial hub setting the national research agenda in smart, collaborative industrial robotics, and deliver the next generation of automated factories. It will focus both on fundamental research to seed new breakthrough technologies needed to make automation more responsive, collaborative, and safe as well as industry-initiated feasibility demonstration projects to raise awareness of emerging automation capabilities.
Dr Lohse added: “I am very excited that our centre has received the support from nearly 50 national and international organisations including SMEs, large end users, technology providers, systems integrators, and research organisations. Even before the centre has been officially launched, more companies are looking to join.”
Professor Rossiter, lead of the University of Bristol team, highlighted the critical need for seamless robotic integration: “Future manufacturing will enhance human workers with robotic technologies, from autonomous smart manipulation to soft robotic power suits.”
Professor Webb, the lead investigator from Cranfield University, commented: “We are really excited about this new collaboration which will further enhance our existing work on close collaboration between humans and robots to put human operators at the centre of such systems thus significantly increasing the impact of industrial robotics in the future workplace. Understanding the impact of robotics and co-working on the human operators is key to building a safe and secure workplace of the future.”
Professor Yan, the lead investigator from the University of Strathclyde, said: “Collaborative working among human operators, robots and other manufacturing machineries raises many research challenges. This distributed research centre will become a great enabler for investigating new ways of configuring and reconfiguring these ‘actors’ for different manufacturing tasks.
“It will be exciting to tackle the challenges faced by multiple sectors from both technological and legal perspectives and see the solutions we can produce. At the University of Strathclyde we are operators of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), which is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC) and we look forward to collaborating with our industrial partners to devise these novel solutions.”
Professor Darek Ceglarek, who leads the University of Warwick team, stated: “I am delighted to be part of the Centre and look forward to working with our academic and industrial partners in accelerating adaptation of industrial robotic systems.
“We will emulate near-real production and product quality through our digital twin for high-fidelity validation to enable right-first-time and near-zero-defect manufacturing. The digital twin will be integrated with AR/VR and avatars embedded decision studio to facilitate new ways of working with industrial robotic systems.”
It is one of five university-led research centres which are being funded by UKRI and Made Smarter as part of a wider £300 million partnership between government, industry, Catapults, and academia led by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Innovation Strategy.
The key priority areas for research and innovation in the centre are:
- Collaboration: Robotic systems need better models of how people naturally interact with others to start truly collaborating with them and fully leverage their respective strength.
- Autonomy: Robots need to extend their sensory perception and autonomous cognition capabilities to effectively carry out increasingly complex tasks, deal with variations, and disruptive changes.
- Responsiveness: The process of designing, verifying, validating, deploying, and operating automation needs to become more accessible for a wider range of people and organisations.
- Acceptance: The societal, cultural, and economic impact of automation needs to be better explored to inform future policy, regulations, and education requirements.