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Reconfigurable cell will allow SMEs to test technologies

31 August, 2017

Smaller British manufacturers will soon have access to a “reconfigurable factory” research cell where they can test machining and assembly technologies before building their own production machinery. The cell is being assembled at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) for the Centre’s Integrated Manufacturing Group (IMG).

Manufacturing SMEs (small and mid-sized enterprises) will be able to work with IMG engineers on projects aimed at taking the risk out of trialling new technologies and processes, before putting them into production. The cell is a scaled-up version of an earlier IMG project which resulted in a small-scale, reconfigurable factory-floor demonstrator. The new version, due to enter service later this year, is a full-scale production cell with multiple tools, grippers and sensors. It can be used to develop robotic, digitally-assisted assembly and part-inspection technologies, and can switch rapidly between production of high-value components and one-off parts.

IMG operations manager, Chris Greaves, says the cell will allow SMEs to trial new robotic assembly techniques for mass customisation, small batch manufacturing techniques, small component assembly, as well as finish machining and polishing operations.

“Our aim is to create more effective engagement and greater open access for SMEs – businesses who may not have the resources to join the AMRC as a member, but still want to take advantage of our state-of-the-art capabilities and world-class research to improve their processes and outputs,” he adds.

As part of the UK’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the AMRC can work with any business, big or small. The IMG wants small manufacturers to use the facility – called Factory 2050 – to prove automation or robotics technologies, or new processes, at low cost and with low risk. It wants to challenge the perception that robotics, automation and digital manufacturing technologies are only for big businesses with deep pockets.

“Projects don’t have to be long running or expensive to make big changes in short amounts of time,” Greaves points out. “Even small projects requiring a short lead-time can be cost-effective and contribute to the improving productivity of a company.

The AMRC is already helping manufacturers to develop robotic applications. The new reconfigurable cell will allow them to trial production technologies.

He cites the example of a small manufacturer that the IMG recently helped to test a new robotic drilling system. “This allowed them to trial the system, so they didn’t have to introduce an unknown technology straight into production on their factory floor, without knowing if it would work or be of benefit,” Greaves explains. “That’s the kind of work we can also do – de-risking research and development for small businesses.”

Greaves believes that businesses that invest in new technologies and processes keep ahead of the competition. “They think about the future, what they want to sell and how they will manufacture it,” he says. “The technology to achieve these goals already exists, improving not only production, but enabling flexibility, cost-effectiveness and improvements in health and safety.”

Ben Morgan, head of the IMG, argues that it is a misconception that automation and robotics cause unemployment. “What we are seeing is that companies who are implementing automation are re-distributing jobs within their business. As productivity increases, so do profits and re-investment,” he reports. “More competitive manufacturing will mean more orders and ultimately more jobs.

“Simply put,” says Morgan, “the UK relies heavily on the success of SMEs. The AMRC want to help SMEs invest in the future and explore how new technologies can help improve production, helping UK businesses remain competitive on national and international markets.”

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