A new national robotics research centre aims to help businesses unlock the full potential of smart factories and industrial manufacturing, according to an announcement from Loughborough University, which is leading the project.

The Made Smarter Innovation Research Centre for Smart, Collaborative Industrial Robotics aims to undertake fundamental research to make automation more responsive, collaborative, and safe.

It will also host demonstration projects to raise awareness of emerging capabilities and accelerate their adoption.

The centre brings together leading academics from the universities of Loughborough, Cranfield, Strathclyde, Warwick, and Bristol – experts across a range of disciplines, including manufacturing, engineering, robotics, safety, law, psychology, systems engineering, metrology, and ICT.

It will also have access to experts in the aerospace, automotive, agri-food, green energy, construction, and space sectors, among others.

According to the announcement, the centre is already backed by 50 different organisations, including SMEs, large end-users, technology providers, systems integrators, and research institutes.

Priority research areas include:

  • Collaboration: Robotic systems need better models of how people interact with each other and with robots.
  • Autonomy: Robots need to extend their sensory perception and autonomous cognition capabilities to carry out complex tasks, while dealing with variations and disruptive changes.
  • Responsiveness: The process of designing, verifying, validating, deploying, and operating automation needs to be accessible to a broader range of people and organisations.
  • Acceptance: The societal, cultural, and economic impact of automation needs to be better understood to inform future policy, regulation, and education needs.

The centre is funded by UKRI (via networking organisation KTN), as part of the Made Smarter programme, a £300 million partnership between government and business. It will be one of five new centres that share £25 million in new investment.

Dr Niels Lohse of Loughborough’s Wolfson School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering is Project Lead. He said: “Automation increases productivity, safeguards manufacturing, and creates and protects jobs.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for greater responsiveness and resilience. With disruptions to supply chains and workforce availability, collaborative robot sales more than doubled, but the UK remains significantly behind other highly industrialised nations.

“While there is a huge appetite for the benefits of industrial automation, its full potential remains untapped. The perceived and actual high initial investment cost for specialised, automation equipment is a significant barrier for wider adoption.

“The need for highly specialised skill sets limits the design, implementation, and maintenance of automation. Specialised equipment is often too inflexible particularly for SMEs with modifications being either too expensive or impractical.

“People and automation are separated by inflexible safety, regulatory, procedural, physical, and psychological barriers preventing effective collaboration.

“Bringing the automation community together will be essential for addressing the unique challenges faced by UK industry to unlock the full potential of their highly skilled workforce through automation and digital technology.”

His comments echo the findings of a 2019 Capgemini report on smart factories, which noted that only 14 percent of such programmes were then succeeding, due to skills gaps, difficulties in scaling programmes, and challenges integrating new technologies with legacy systems and processes.

Simply investing in new technology is not enough, it warned. At the heart of the challenge are IT and operational technology convergence, plus the need for employees to develop hybrid skills. Organisations are not investing fast enough in retraining their workforces, said Capgemini.

• In related news, Amazon Web Services (AWS) has launched IoT RoboRunner, a new robotics service that it says makes it easier for enterprises to build and deploy applications that help fleets of robots work together seamlessly. Interoperability, integration, and management are key challenges in connected robotics.

Find out who is involved in this new research centre programme via this link.