Developing tomorrow’s tooling and technologies

Posted on 6 Nov 2020 by Tom Lane

Funding has been secured to kick-start an ambitious new project for the research, development and production of new machine tools which will be needed to manufacture tomorrow’s technologies. The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), in partnership with the University of Huddersfield, University of Salford, Rochdale Development Agency and PTG Holroyd Precision, has secured early-stage funding for the Advanced Machinery and Productivity (AMP) Institute in Rochdale.

The UK was once a hot-bed for creating and developing machine tools which were renowned the world over, although this part of home-grown industry has been on a gradual decline since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

However, UK engineers and manufacturing technology providers are well-known for adding value to existing machinery to tackle complex manufacturing processes, and the AMP Institute aims to start the development and production of new machinery so the UK can once again take the lead in the production of future technologies.

Through partnership between NPL (the UK’s National Metrology Institute), industry, local government and higher education institutions, the AMP Institute will deliver a sustainable programme of innovation and skills directly impacting its own local economy and that of UK industry export.

Next generation

Two people charged with overseeing and implementing the project are Gareth Edwards, Strategy Lead for Industrial Digitalisation (NPL) and Vice Chair of the Sensors Innovation Leadership Council, and Dr Tony Bannan, OBE, CEO of Precision Technologies Group (PTG), spoke to us about their plans.

Advanced Machinery and Productivity Institute
Advanced Machinery and Productivity Institute

Tom Lane: We don’t necessarily manufacture machine tools on such a big scale any more in the UK. Is the Advanced Manufacturing and Productivity Institute looking at future technologies to bring some of that lost part of industry back to the UK?

Gareth Edwards (GE): You’ve hit the nail on the head, trying to recreate past glories or to get back to a level competitive field just doesn’t make good economic sense. Let us look at what the next generation of capability is needed. Where are the opportunities for the UK to capitalise on its innovation infrastructure on its own? Let us look at our success on the core capabilities we have got in the UK, within the design, development and manufacturer of machinery, so that the UK can produce and take the lead with the next generation of machines.

Tony Bannan (TB): There’s a big step to get ourselves up to world class competitiveness in existing manufacturing systems using integrated systems such as 5G. This project is the perfect example of something that is developing in a way that brings us up to a truly competitive level. This is machine tools and manufacturing as we see it today, and will keep us busy for 20-25 years. We don’t currently have that capability, except in the supply chain where you’ve got particular pockets of expertise all battling between each other for a slice of the pie. We should be coordinating activities in such a way that no one has a competitive advantage, where we are all able to combine forces in such a way as to give ourselves some synergy, a grand vision. I know it sounds a bit grandiose, but it’s feasible if we get it right.

Why now?

Gareth Edwards, Strategy Lead for Industrial Digitalisation (NPL)
Gareth Edwards, Strategy Lead for Industrial Digitalisation (NPL)

GE: That ties into government policy and into helping the UK develop a more resilient supply chain. This has been highlighted by the COVID-19 spike and the impact this has had on manufacturing and our ability to source materials and products. All these things that have come into sharp focus while we have been building up this idea and narrative, and we believe that there is something worth developing.

Industry itself has been calling for advances and we’ve got involved because advanced machinery is all about knowing precisely where you are in space and time and having the metrology to be able to deliver.

And that’s NPL’s role, to help industry to resolve the measurement challenges that the industry comes up with. The AMP Institute would give us an opportunity to experience those challenges with industry as they develop them, as they experience them. As it currently happens, industry comes up with a problem, NPL then has to spend time solving it which results in a lapse in the system and that’s our motivation to ensure timely developments are made.

What sort of future technologies and processes will the AMP Institute be developing? And how will it work from a collaboration perspective?

GE: Starting the journey together and coming up with something fresh is vital. Asking the right questions, such as what sort of machine capabilities are you actually looking to produce? What will be the difference between a standard generation machine tool and any new technologies that you are advancing, without spending too much money? It is so important to differentiate – the institute is a collective of industry and academic research partners and NPL will help on the development side.

The important thing here is that the innovation, the development and the exploitation is progressed by industry. It is enhanced with input from partners and industry experts and so on. The institute would be a central expert resource, but it is all about helping industry to further the innovation itself. It is fundamentally looking at more complex machines than currently exist, it is looking at technologies that are needed to be able to make future products that are not currently in place.

Dr Tony Bannan, OBE, CEO of Precision Technologies Group (PTG)
Dr Tony Bannan, OBE, CEO of Precision Technologies Group (PTG)

TB: If you think about materials, development and evolution over time, there will be a shift away from minerals based manufacturing, or at least ramping up and a balancing of minerals and cellular based manufacturing in advanced economies. Currently we don’t really understand cellular base manufacturing, plant based and biological based issues. And there is a whole range of technologies that will need to be developed which is where we will be focusing our energies. Funding has been secured for the project, but the disruption of the pandemic has pushed the timeline back slightly.

The construction of the AMP Institute should commence next summer and be fully operational by 2022. The Manufacturer will be tracking the progress of this exciting new initiative and offering regular updates on its progress.

Please get in touch with Deputy Editor, Tom Lane, at [email protected] if you would like to discuss your latest machinery technology developments and initiatives.