Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Smart, self-configuring factories on horizon thanks to £5m research centre

A new £5m research centre aims to put UK manufacturing on the map for the sustainable and scalable production of high-value, customised products using smart and connected factories.

Led by the University of Nottingham, in partnership with the Universities of Cambridge and Sheffield, the Made Smarter Innovation – Research Centre for Connected Factories plans to develop new digital manufacturing infrastructure that can autonomously morph into different configurations to meet specific product and volume requirements, supply chain variations and disruptions.

The research will provide a blueprint for a unique connected network of future smart factories able to cost-effectively manufacture complex products on-demand while exhibiting new levels of resilience and responsiveness to rapid and unpredictable change.

At the University of Nottingham, the activities for the research centre will be undertaken by a multidisciplinary team led by Professor Svetan Ratchev, an expert in production engineering and manufacturing systems.

Industry partners include Airbus, BAE Systems, BMW, Cosworth, GKN Aerospace, Nestlé and Spirit, Beckhoff, Omron, RTI, Siemens, Target 3D, FANUC, Bosch Rexroth, Loop, Starrag, PA Consulting, NPL, Make UK and the HVM Catapult MTC and AMRC centres.

Professor Ratchev, Director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, said: “We are delighted to have secured the funding for the new research centre which will be focused on developing the fundamental principles for a new class of highly-adaptable connected factories.

“The pandemic has brought into focus the capacity and capability challenges of delivering critical products and maintaining production in the face of major disruptions and exposed the limitations of current factories imposed by their rigid structures and boundaries.

“It also accelerated the emerging trend for more localised, greener and cost-competitive manufacturing infrastructure with the ability to produce a wider set of complex products faster, better and cheaper.

“The new generation of smart, connected morphing factories will offer a much-needed step-change in key UK industrial sectors making them more agile and responsive to global competition and evolving market demands and significantly more sustainable and environmentally friendly by dynamically repurposing, redeploying and reconfiguring the available production resources.”

The Centre, which has been funded by Made Smarter Innovation delivered by UK Research and Innovation, will provide the tools, technology, techniques and business practices to help the mainstream manufacturing industry to adopt ‘morphing’ factory assembly systems.


The future connected ‘morphing’ factories will not be confined to single locations and will be closely connected at different levels to form complex morphing manufacturing infrastructure characterised by key facets including agility, autonomy, multifunctionality and resilience.

The Nottingham researchers will use a Made Smarter-supported digital assembly demonstrator called FA3D2 to collect data, test, validate a core assembly system’s ability to morph. Key facets of the demonstrator will be the ability to identify the requirements for each new product entering the system, rearrange its physical configuration, recalibrate and reset tooling and conduct synthesis and validation of control algorithms and equipment programmes using a digital twin model.

A testing and validation programme will be developed based on combination of simulation and formal verification via model checking, providing validated results and performance data for the industrial study scenarios.

At the University of Sheffield, the activities for this Research Centre will be undertaken by the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering (ACSE) and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) with Professor Ashutosh Tiwari as the lead from Sheffield.

The University of Sheffield will lead a research theme focusing on the development of an in-process monitoring and control infrastructure. This will be capable of providing real-time intelligence on the current and future states of a manufacturing process, allowing dynamic task planning to self-adapt to multiple product and process variations.

Sheffield will also lead an application study on rapidly configurable machining processes, focusing on robotic drilling and sensorised fixtures, to enable industrial-scale testing and TRL scaleup.

Cambridge University – led by Professor Duncan McFarlane and collaborators Dr Sebastian Pattinson and Dr Thomas Bohne – will explore the way in which different developments such as in Internet of Things, additive manufacturing and human-centred technologies can be systematically combined to produce greater adaptability both within a factory and between factories. The whole notion of a (digital) systems architecture for manufacturing will be reassessed as part of this work.

The activities of the centre will include both fundamental and applied research as well as a programme of networking and engagement activities. A programme of fundamental research will be carried out to define the principles, methods and models for connected morphing factories.

The theoretical developments will be validated through an applied research strand which will address emerging industrial needs and demonstrate the results through a set of application studies including smart machining, production integrated 3D printing and autonomous assembly integrated into a common hyper-connected morphing factory cloud.

A programme of networking and engagement activities with other Made Smarter research and innovation centres, industry and the general public to maximise the impact of the research, encourage accelerated technology uptake and increase public awareness.

Made Smarter Innovation Challenge Director, UKRI, Chris Courtney, said: “Digital technologies have the power to radically transform how we manufacture and deliver the products and services of today and the future delivering a productive, sustainable and flexible manufacturing sector and enhancing the future of work within it.

“There are enormous opportunities to innovate in this area, we have world leading industries, a powerful scientific and research community and a vibrant technology sector. It is vital we form a vibrant connected ecosystem from applied research to industrialisation in order to fully capitalise on that potential.

“We have seen tremendous demand for this area across all sectors, company sizes and locations, and real evidence of the vibrant community of innovators in the areas of digital manufacturing and supply chains. I’m excited to see how this powerful coalition transforms the future of manufacturing and its supply chains.”

Lord Grimstone, Minister for Investment, said: “We want our manufacturers to continue to be world leading and help drive forward the growing digital industrial revolution, not only increasing their productivity but helping grow the whole UK economy.
“Today’s investment shows we are doing everything we can to give businesses across the UK the tools they need to drive up productivity and build back better. Digital technology has the power to transform all aspects of manufacturing, I am excited to build on the University of Nottingham’s proud legacy in the industry by having them among the hosts of two of the new industry-sponsored research centres.”

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