Midlands manufacturers to benefit from new centre for data-driven metrology

Three Midlands universities are combining their specialist knowhow to form a new virtual centre for data-driven metrology to assist UK manufacturers in achieving efficiency gains, cost savings and manufacturing process flexibility.

The project will also deliver benefits in terms of more reliable products, lower environmental impact from manufacturing processes, and better employment opportunities for skilled workers. 

The University of Nottingham, Loughborough University and Coventry University have just been awarded £2.9m in Research England Development (RED) funding to run the Midlands Centre for Data-Driven Metrology (MCDDM). 

Each institution involved has a strong track record in research, training and practice of metrology (measurement and quality control techniques) for industrial applications.

Services developed and offered by MCDDM will include integration research, adoption methodologies and training in data-driven measurement science and its application to digital manufacturing. 

Professor Richard Leach, Director of MCDDM at the University of Nottingham, said: “Digital manufacturing uses a vast amount of data and trustworthy data is critical to all stages, from design to production, and even the way that products are used. Good data enables “right-first-time” manufacture, reduces scrap costs and energy consumption. Credible data also leads to more agile processes that make consistently higher quality products, improve productivity and facilitate effective business decisions. Metrology is a powerful tool for acquiring confidence in that data.

“Many companies understand the importance of data-rich processes and technologies, but do not understand how to initiate them, what data to capture, and indeed how best to use it once they have captured it. There is a shortage of targeted process inspection, optimisation and control solutions throughout the supply chain. 

“These gaps in workforce knowledge on data-driven metrology have slowed the move to digital, advanced manufacturing. This applies across many high-value sectors including aerospace, automotive, medical instrumentation, precision optics and, more recently, construction. Even if improved metrology produced gains for UK advanced manufacturing of only 0.1 per cent of turnover, the impact would be over £150m a year.”

The project will develop new technologies and practices to enable the integration of metrology into the advanced manufacturing processes, and workforce training, of participating companies – from SMEs to major corporations. This includes manufacturing scale-up activities, new products and production development, pilot manufacturing and quality improvement initiatives.

MCDDM will complement existing provision of measurement services by addressing niche metrology problems that cannot be solved by conventional means, on-site, for industrial partners in the Midlands region, where there is a high concentration of manufacturers. 

Any research interventions, advice, hands-on training, student placements, good practice guides, apprenticeships and accredited measurement services will be subsidised or free to MCDDM clients for the first three years.

MCDDM will operate as a multi-site centre to increase its catchment area. The University of Nottingham, for example, has extensive research facilities in pure and applied metrology in its flagship Advanced Manufacturing Building; where MCDDM will address industrial problems for participating firms. Nottingham experts, Professor Richard Leach, Dr Samanta Piano, Dr David Branson, Dr Nicholas Watson and Matthew Hutchinson, will focus on information-rich metrology, basic metrology, measurement uncertainty and surface metrology.

Loughborough University’s lead is Dr Peter Kinnell, who along with Dr Niels Lohse and Dr Jon Petzing, all based in the Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical & Manufacturing Engineering, specialise in metrology with automation and robotics, sensors, artificial intelligence and vision. 

Coventry University academics, Professor Trevor Toman and Nick Turner, bring expertise in knowledge transfer and training for current and future metrology needs to the MCDDM. Coventry University is making further investment in equipment and space at its Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering and is focusing on developing the Institute as a business-friendly environment for manufacturing companies across the supply chains.

Dr Peter Kinnell, Reader in Metrology at Loughborough University, said: “We’re really looking forward to working with industry through the MCDDM to help support the uptake of new technologies. At Loughborough we have been doing lots of work looking into the integration of measurement technology within the factory, particularly to enable more capable industrial robotics and manufacturing automation systems. What’s really exciting at the moment is that advances in sensors and vision systems, coupled with artificial intelligence and low-cost high-performance computing, are starting to make many previously challenging measurement or inspection tasks now solvable – the challenge is to make sure we have confidence in the data so we can place trust in the results.” 

Professor Trevor Toman, Head of Metrology at Coventry University, said: “Throughout my career in both manufacturing industry and the University, I have seen how a good understanding of measurement science and how it applies to design and production has not only delivered improvements in efficiency and product quality, it has also enabled better business decisions to be made because of increased confidence in the data informing those decisions. Digital manufacturing is all about managing large amounts of data, often in real time, across the supply chain; our confidence in that data is critically dependent on our understanding of the measurements that generate and control it.”

The project aims to enable companies to understand and apply:

  • Sensor and sensing fusion approaches
  • Data handling and machine learning
  • Uncertainty modelling
  • Manufacturing process simulation

MCDDM researchers will share new approaches to accurate 3D measurement in the automotive, aerospace, marine, construction, food and rail sectors, breaking down application silos and facilitating knowledge exchange. At a smaller scale, collaboration with instrumentation companies, especially in the medical and dental sectors, may benefit manufacturers of other products ranging from precision optics to jewellery.

The project will also provide a pipeline of trained engineers with industry-relevant skills to ensure the UK is competitive in digital manufacturing. Industry partners and Catapult funding is supporting 15-20 PhDs for the duration of the MCDDM.

The initial RED support will provide funding of £2.9m for three years, which will allow the growth of collaboration between the three partner universities and provide a central focus for all activity. MCDDM will operate for a minimum of five years, bringing predicted business benefits totalling £45m, within that time. After the first three years, the Centre aims to be self-sufficient through membership fees and consultancy work.

While MCDDM has already signed up numerous partners including SMEs; large corporations; national laboratories; the HMV Catapult; and trade associations, it is still keen to attract more collaborators and clients.

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