EPSRC NetworkPlus In Digitalised Surface Manufacturing: Towards "World's Best" Processes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Materials


Coatings are key to the performance of most products and they contribute to sustainability by enhancing the efficiency and extending the life of the products that they protect, as well as by enabling the reduced use of scarce bulk materials. Therefore, coatings are a vital part of the nation's manufacturing industry, contributing to many sectors, including aerospace, energy, automotive and construction. However, until now the UK coatings industry has been severely lagging behind compared to High Value Manufacturing sectors in terms of all aspects of design, development, manufacture, and implementation into products, particularly in terms of the degree of digitalisation achieved (as epitomised in the "Industry 4.0" concept).

This EPSRC NetworkPlus in Digitalised Surface Manufacturing is needed because currently there is no UK University that has all the required interdisciplinary expertise in surface engineering and digital manufacturing and there is a lack of 'connected' knowledge in the area of digitalisation of coating manufacturing processes in UK industry. The Network will bring together academic and industrial expertise in multiple disciplines to address the challenges of digitalising the UK coatings manufacturing sector. The Network will create a community that will be able to carry out innovative leading-edge research which will ultimately allow the coatings manufacturing industry to achieve the best-in-class levels of High Value Manufacturing. The development of a UK-wide network around digital methods for surface manufacturing can bring optimum manufacture processes ("right first time") to the surface engineering and advanced coatings community in the UK.

The creation of this NetworkPlus will serve to capture and understand the current manufacturing scene and pump-prime digitalisation activity in this area. The new interdisciplinary research community developed within the Network will assist the UK PLC to develop manufacturing methods which are predictable, digital-enabled and more productive, providing the pathway to class-leading coating manufacturing processes. This will bring resilience and improved productivity across all key UK industrial sectors. End-users of the coatings industry span all sectors and thus the economical and societal impact of the Network will be wide-ranging. In turn, the digitalisation of the coatings manufacturing industry will also mean that the benefits of coatings on products are thoroughly recordable and accessible, as is needed to enable statistically robust knowledge of manufactured product lifetimes and performance. This is vital to enabling full life-cycle assessment of coated products and the sustainability implications of the coatings applied, contributing to the long-term aims of a resilient manufacturing.

Planned Impact

Recent studies (such as the one by the industry-led Special Interest Group in Surface Engineering and Advanced Coatings) have demonstrated that the UK coatings market is worth about £11 billion annually. Moreover, coatings are vital to over £140bn of products made in the UK each year, and these products drive manufacturing turnovers greater than £380bn in UK companies (around 25% of UK GDP). Nevertheless, the coatings sector in the UK lags behind other manufacturing process technology sectors, particularly with regard to the level of digitalisation achieved. Such digitalisation capability is needed for coatings to achieve their full potential to add value to products and to contribute optimally to sustainability objectives, given the critical role which coatings can play in conserving energy and materials resources.

This EPSRC NetworkPlus in Digitalised Surface Manufacturing will create a community which will be able to address the urgent need to remove the constraints on current coatings manufacturing described above by driving and fully exploiting breakthroughs in Industrial Digitalisation Technologies (IDTs). The future uptake of the "Industry 4.0" concepts will help achieve the step-change needed in the coatings manufacturing industry. The sector is dominated by SME coatings providers, who lack the financial and technical resources to pursue the necessary research and development themselves, so the Network's activities will have a particular impact on them.

This Network will enable the digital transformation of the UK coatings industry, which will result in improved productivity, enhanced efficiency and increased sustainability. Through the implementation of IDTs, the coatings manufacturing sector will, in the future, be able to faster develop novel coatings with improved performance and functionalities directed by end-user needs. Since coatings are critical to the performance of most products, the impact of this Network will expand to many sectors in UK intry, ranging from aerospace and automotive to healthcare and food & drink. The recent "Made Smarter" review estimated that the positive impact of faster innovation and adoption of IDTs throughout UK industry could be as much as £455 billion for UK manufacturing over the next decade, by increasing manufacturing sector growth between 1.5% and 3% per annum. The successful implementation of digitalisation technologies in the UK coatings industry facilitated by this Network will contribute to making the UK a global leader in industrial digitalisation in the coatings sector.


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