Public Release: 

Research to make UK manufacturing flexible and adaptable

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Factories that use networks of light-based measurement systems for accurate measurement of products and real time control of machines; precise metal forming processes that can deliver small batches high value components and products; assembly lines that evolve and adapt quickly to new demands and use interchangeable components.

These are visions for UK manufacturing in the future according to six new research projects that have been awarded a total of £12.2 million Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grant funding as part of a £45 million package of investments in manufacturing research announced today by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science.

Speaking ahead of the BIS Manufacturing Summit on Thursday, Mr Willetts said:

"The UK has a proud history of manufacturing but to build on this success industry needs access to the very latest science and technology. This £45 million package of investment will see our world-class research base investigating innovative new manufacturing equipment and techniques. This will support our industrial strategy in a range of important sectors, driving growth and keeping the UK ahead in the global race."

The projects, which begin this month at universities across the country, will look into a variety of challenges connected to developing more flexible and adaptive manufacturing technology and systems.

They are:

  • The Light Controlled Factory EP/K018124/1 - led by Professor Paul Maropoulos at the University of Bath - Grant value £2.5 million

  • Precision guided flexible forming: closed-loop control of geometry and properties for high value metal component manufacture EP/K018108/1 - led by Dr Julian Allwood at the University of Cambridge - Grant value £1.7 million

  • Evolvable assembly systems - towards open, adaptable and context-aware equipment and systems EP/K018205/1 - led by Professor Svetan Ratchev at the University of Nottingham - Grant value £2.2 million

  • Knowledge driven configurable manufacturing (KDCM) EP/K018191/1 - led by Professor Robert Harrison at the University of Warwick - Grant value £1.9 million

  • Miniature, flexible and reconfigurable manufacturing system for 3D micro-products EP/K018345/1 - led by Dr Xichun Luo at the University of Huddersfield - Grant value £2 million

  • Metrology concepts for a new generation of plasma manufacturing with atom-scale precision EP/K018388/1 - led by Professor Timo Gans at the University of York - Grant value £1.9 million

EPSRC's Chief Executive, Professor David Delpy said: "Our high labour costs combined with global competition mean that the future of UK manufacturing lies in being as smart as possible. The country has the scientific and engineering know-how to not only develop new, valuable products, but the means to produce them more precisely, efficiently and to order. These research projects will help the country gear up for a future that can redefine manufacturing worldwide."


For media enquiries contact:

Richard Tibenham at the EPSRC Press Office, tel: 01793 444 404, e-mail:

Notes to Editors:

1. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

2. Further project details:

The Light Controlled Factory

The project's vision is for the widespread adoption and interlinked deployment of novel, measurement-based techniques in factories, to provide machines and parts with aspects of temporal, spatial and dimensional self-awareness, enabling superior machine control and parts verification. The title "Light Controlled Factory" reflects the enabling role of optical metrology in future factories.

It has ten industrial partners including Airbus, Astrium Satellites, Rolls-Royce, Renishaw and the National Physical Laboratory. Precision Guided Flexible Forming

'Metal Bashing' - changing the shape of metal components - is easily over-looked or even derided as the 'ugly duckling' of manufacturing technology, yet continues to be central to UK manufacturing, and always will be: jet engines, medical scanners, cars, high-rise offices and contemporary industrial equipment all depend on metal forming, both to define component geometries and to create the properties such as strength and toughness which determine product performance. However, the tools required for forming metal components are custom-made, so metal forming is often expensive unless used in mass production, yet the drivers for development of future high-value UK manufacturing require increased flexibility and smaller batch sizes.

The past twenty years has seen a wave of innovation in flexible metal forming process design, but these novel processes have largely failed to move out of the lab into industrial use, due to a lack of precision. In work leading to this proposal, the team demonstrated the first online use of a stereo-vision camera in a flexible sheet metal forming process to provide the feedback needed to control the final shape of the sheet precisely. The project brings together four disciplines, previously un-connected in the area of flexible forming, to develop the key knowledge underpinning future development of commercially valuable flexible metal forming equipment: mechanical design of novel equipment; control-engineering in both time and space; materials science of metal forming; fast mathematical process modelling. At the heart of the project is the ambition to link design, metallurgy and modelling to control engineering, in order to identify the opportunity for developing and applying flexible forming, and to demonstrate it in practice in four well focused case-studies.

Evolvable assembly systems - towards open, adaptable and context-aware equipment and systems

The assembly of final products in sectors such as automotive, aerospace, pharmaceutical and medical industries is a key production process in high labour cost areas such as the UK. The goal of this research is to define and validate the vision and support architecture, theoretical models, methods and algorithms for Evolvable Assembly Systems as a new platform for open, adaptable, context-aware and cost effective production.

The research programme aims to deliver a new paradigm shift in adaptable and cost effective manufacture that breaks with traditional approaches and is based on an innovative intertwining of a number of foundational research challenges in complex collective adaptive manufacturing systems.

The University of Nottingham has an established track record in multi-disciplinary transformative research. This project draws on unique research skills from across the university, to bring together a multidisciplinary, multi-sector partnership.

The industrial partners from key high value manufacturing sectors include Airbus, Astra Zeneca, BAE Systems, Siemens, GE, ABB, Hyde, Destaco and TQC Ltd.

Close collaboration with the industry stakeholders will ensure direct impact across multiple manufacturing sectors based on increased ability of organisations to respond to customer needs and to reduce product cost through the increased responsiveness of systems, as well as accelerated development of new products. Knowledge driven configurable manufacturing (KDCM)

This project focuses on component-based modular reconfigurable systems, i.e. manufacturing systems that are built up from various elements and assembled together, in a similar fashion to building with 'Lego'. The research programme aims to create self-reconfiguring manufacturing systems, where knowledge captured within the system drives future design optimisation in order to enable a radical improvement in manufacturing effectiveness and sustainability.

Miniature, flexible and reconfigurable manufacturing system for 3D micro-products

Micromanufacturing is an enabling technology for manufacturing micro-products whose functional features, or at least one dimension, are in the order of μm. In micromanufacturing, production technologies are clearly advancing towards the economical manufacturing of high precision 3D micro-products made of a variety of materials. For example, life science as an emerging application area, requires polymer, glass, ceramics and metal rather than only silicon as raw materials of micro products.

Driven by the ever increasing need for higher throughput, integration and performance, more and more high precision three-dimensional (3D) microstructures are designed for the next generation of micro-products such as smart optical encoders, microfluidics, fluidic microchemical reactors, micro fuel cells and smart implant, to name a few.

The volume of production varies for these customised micro-products. Maintaining productivity and reliability, whilst allowing flexibility is a major technological challenge in micromanufacturing industry, which is currently dominated by mass production practice. In recent years, new hybrid machining processes, multifunctional machine tools, desktop machines and microfactories are beginning to be developed towards flexible manufacturing processes and there is significant frontier and ongoing research in this area. However, there is a clear technology gap in bringing these separate aspects under one umbrella for the benefit of the UK manufacturing sector.

The project team has, therefore, established a new agenda, to research and create miniature flexible and reconfigurable manufacturing systems with features of rapid hybrid machining processes assisted by multi-scale modelling, optical chip sensors for on-line surface metrology and parallel robots for 3D micro-assembly.

Providing access to this reconfigurable and flexible manufacturing system research will greatly enhance the competitiveness of UK industry, especially photonics and medical instrument sectors, which present a major percentage of the UK export trade. Net shape manufacturing sector will also benefit from enhanced flexibility due to the capability to produce low-cost, high-quality precision moulds/dies not attainable before.

Metrology concepts for a new generation of plasma manufacturing with atom-scale precision

Intelligent use of plasmas will play a key role in future high-value manufacturing; this will provide enormous potential for the UK to expand their world‐market share through developing superior technologies. Using next-generation plasma processing applications, for 3-D transistor based integrated circuit technology (ICT), synthetic diamond manufacturing and atmospheric pressure plasma healthcare technologies, requires precision monitoring and control of the non-equilibrium properties of plasmas. A critical barrier in achieving this is the lack of suitable sensors and strategies for adaptable process control. The team will develop a novel sensor technique, create the architecture to implement it in virtual metrology, and demonstrate it in real-time industrial plasma processes.

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