Manufacturing for the future

Posted on 10 May 2011 by The Manufacturer

Dr Mark Claydon-Smith, EPSRC’s head of manufacturing, describes the thinking behind the research council’s Manufacturing the Future initiative, including its latest investment in nine new EPSRC Centres for Innovative Manufacturing.

Mark says: “The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. We invest around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training in a broad range of subjects – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering.

Manufacturing research has always been a key part of our portfolio, covering underpinning science, simulation and design, production, fabrication, systems and services. The research we sponsor and investments we make are helping drive the innovation in high-value manufacturing necessary for competitive aerospace, pharmaceutical, healthcare and other vital engineering sectors.

EPSRC is unique in supporting basic manufacturing research through to the stage where applications can be developed by companies or agencies such as the Technology Strategy Board and the Energy Technologies Institute. In its Plan for Growth, published to coincide with the 2011 Budget, the government recognised EPSRC’s integral role in helping UK businesses meet future manufacturing challenges through its announcement of nine new national EPSRC Centres for Innovative Manufacturing. The Plan also introduced new EPSRC Fellowships in Manufacturing.

The new EPSRC Centres will undertake cutting-edge research to address major long-term manufacturing challenges as well as emergent market opportunities. The centres are supported by leading industrial partners and a range of high-tech small and medium-sized enterprises across a wide range of sectors.

The new EPSRC Centres form part of EPSRC’s wider Manufacturing the Future initiative through which we are investing £80 million annually over the next four years in manufacturing-related research and training.

The EPSRC Centres are the direct result of recommendations from an international panel of academics and business experts brought together in April 2010 by EPSRC to assess the quality of our manufacturing research portfolio, as well as to identify gaps within it.

Key criteria for the new EPSRC centres are the innovative nature of the proposed research; leadership and vision of the director; national need and national perspective; and the strength of the commitment from business.

We believe we have achieved a diverse portfolio – with a mix across sectors and disciplines, and a balance between product, technology and systems focus.

EPSRC Fellowships in Manufacturing
To further sharpen our strategy, in 2010 EPSRC commissioned the Institute for Manufacturing to undertake a ‘competitor study’ of manufacturing innovation in successful manufacturing economies. One observation was that leading academics engaged in manufacturing-related research in the USA and Germany were likely to have a more significant industrial background than is typical in the UK.

Taking its cue from these findings, the government’s 2011 Plan for Growth announced our intention to support at least six new Manufacturing Fellowships. These Fellowships will support exceptional engineers and technology specialists from business who are able to lead a £1 million programme of university research with real commercial potential.

Impact from investment
EPSRC has supported manufacturing research centres for over a decade – sufficient time for impact from this research, including new products, processes and technologies, to materialise and be captured. We therefore commissioned DTZ consultancy to perform an independent assessment of the centres’ economic impact.

This analysis, which we hope to publish within the next few months, demonstrated substantial return on the EPSRC investment through a host of manufacturing innovations. The centres have created world-leading manufacturing technologies and ground-breaking solutions to a host of challenges, including deep sea subsea welding, novel software development and eco-friendly food packaging. UK-based businesses are the major beneficiaries of these breakthroughs, which were achieved through partnerships between academic research and industry.

The analysis is helping us understand how we might accelerate pathways to impact from our future investments.

High Value Manufacturing Technology and Innovation Centre
EPSRC is developing ever-stronger ties with the Technology Strategy Board in support of advanced manufacturing. An important part of this collaboration is a new High Value Manufacturing Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC), announced in April 2011, which will play a key role in further bridging the gap between universities and businesses, taking research to the next stage of the innovation chain, and helping to commercialise the outputs of Britain’s world-class research base.

The TIC will allow businesses to access equipment and expertise that would otherwise be out of reach, and conduct their own in-house R&D. It will also help businesses access new funding streams and point them towards the potential of emerging technologies.

Industrial Doctorate Training Centres in Manufacturing
In January EPSRC announced five new Industrial Doctorate Training Centres in Manufacturing , which will help students taking an engineering doctorate (EngD) understand the needs of business, develop entrepreneurial skills, and undertake training in the most innovative future technologies in advanced manufacturing needed by business. Four of these Training Centres are associated with partners of the HVM TIC.

Between them, over their lifetime the five training centres will train hundreds of highly-skilled manufacturing engineers.

Future investment
Looking ahead, there are further areas we wish to explore, such as international opportunities around sustainable manufacturing, covering both energy and resource efficiency. We see particular opportunities for frontier manufacturing – progressing emerging scientific fields which have the potential for a transformative impact on manufacturing over the next 10 to 20 years.”

Harnessing expertise

EPSRC is continually looking to refine its approach and support for manufacturing innovation, and as part of this commitment in 2010 established the EPSRC Manufacturing Group (EMG), comprising leading academics and industrialists.

Members of the EPSRC Manufacturing Group cover the breadth of EPSRC’s manufacturing research portfolio, from both academic and user perspectives. The group’s aims include helping to strengthen the case for strategic investment in manufacturing research; informing and influencing manufacturing policy; and engaging the wider research community with EPSRC’s manufacturing mission. Advice from the EPSRC Manufacturing Group helped the research council identify Manufacturing the Future as a priority theme for its 2011-15 Delivery Plan. EPSRC is investing around £80 million annually over the next four years in over 2,500 manufacturing research projects, supporting more than 2,700 PhD students and involving collaboration with more than 2,000 companies.