Matt Reed explains how laboratory-based R&D can be digitally transformed through robotics, automation and high-performance computing.
As the birthplace of the First Industrial Revolution, the spirit of innovation has always been at the heart of the North West of England.
From textiles to trains, the pressing commercial problems of the day have driven innovative solutions and new science across the region for more than 250 years.
Today, the digital technologies that underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution – big data, digital twinning, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence – are transforming research, innovation and product development.
At the University of Liverpool, we aim to transform the scale, pace, quality and impact of R&D.
Revolutionising the way that laboratory R&D is conducted – leveraging the power of advanced robotics, automation and high-performance computing techniques
By re-engineering traditional innovation approaches, we have developed a new process for the application of leading-edge digital tools to lab-based R&D, known as Innovation 4.0.
This new approach has already helped to accelerate research discoveries and allowed both leading corporates and SMEs to re-engineer their innovation processes and launch innovations into the market faster.
The Materials Innovation Factory
Central to Innovation 4.0 is the Materials Innovation Factory (MIF), an £81m state-of-the-art facility located at the heart of our university campus.
Founded on strategic partnerships between the University of Liverpool, Unilever and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the MIF is dedicated to accelerating and transforming academic and industrial R&D for advanced materials, chemistry and formulation.
The MIF facility is a dynamic innovation ecosystem and is ‘open by design’, meaning the labs, highly-skilled staff and £20m of advanced scientific equipment are available for use by academics and industry specialists alike.
A dedicated team of technical experts is located onsite to assist with experiments and train scientists on how to use the accessible, cutting-edge scientific kit housed across the 12,000m2 MIF building.
Since opening for business in 2017, the MIF has attracted additional funding from a number of commercial partners as well as the Henry Royce Institute – the UK’s national centre of excellence for advanced materials research and innovation.
Built on world-class research
At the MIF, we have an ‘open for business’ approach, but there is absolutely no compromise on the academic quality of our research.
Housing cutting-edge scientific technology, the 12,000m2 Materials Innovation Factory building is based on campus at the University of Liverpool
We are home to more than 200 academic researchers, including some of the world’s most pioneering and highly decorated scientists such as Professors Andy Cooper and Matt Rosseinsky who are both Fellows of the Royal Society.
The University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group and, in the government’s most recent Research Excellence Framework exercise, our chemistry department was ranked in the top two institutions in the UK for its world-class scientific research, further showcasing our academic strength and knowledge leadership.
The co-location of best in class academic research teams and commercial innovators all under one roof makes the MIF a truly unique R&D facility within the North West and worldwide.
Pioneering materials discovery
Working with the MIF and the Hartree Centre in Warrington, NSG-Pilkington is aiming to discover new, high-performance, transparent conducting materials to underpin the development of the next generation of their market-leading glass products.
A research project supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry (KCMC) highlighted the opportunity for digital approaches to tackle problems across NSG’s global business and identified specific high-value applications in key markets including automotive, architectural glass and displays.
Through the application of Innovation 4.0 approaches, NSG has begun to embed computational and digital methods into the organisational culture of its R&D teams, creating new opportunities for materials research to drive new product development.
Socially distanced R&D
Even before the COVID-19 lockdown, the application of Innovation 4.0 to our own laboratory R&D activities at the University of Liverpool enabled a mobile robotic chemist to work around the clock with minimal human intervention.
It is ‘socially distanced’ R&D by design. Leading science journal Nature recently reported on a trial run in which the robot chemist performed 688 experiments over eight days, working for 172 out of the 192 hours – stopping only to recharge its battery.
Developed by MIF academic director Professor Andy Cooper and PhD student Benjamin Burger, with support from EPSRC and the Leverhulme Trust, the 1.75-metre tall robot chemist is equipped with a high level of artificial intelligence which allows it to learn as it works.
The mobile robot is able to carry out complex experiments in a regular R&D lab, either alongside human researchers or alone – making it the perfect technology for carrying out R&D at a time when social distancing and working from home have been forced upon university and company laboratories.
The robot can even conduct new experiments by interpreting and exploiting previous data, thereby dramatically accelerating both innovation and scientific discovery.
Many commercial labs are currently operating at around 25% of their pre-lockdown capacity due to social distancing measures.
The application of mobile robots and Innovation 4.0 can begin to unlock the potential of R&D from home, allowing staff to work safely in a lab or at home without a compromise in research output.
Adopting Innovation 4.0 will undoubtedly allow companies to free up their R&D staff to focus on innovation, develop new solutions and accelerate new and improved commercial products to market faster than ever before.
To learn more about the MIF and Innovation 4.0, click here
Matt Reed is Strategy Director of the Materials Innovation Factory at the University of Liverpool
*All images courtesy of the Materials Innovation Factory, the University of Liverpool