Elastic Manufacturing systems - a platform for dynamic, resilient and cost-effective manufacturing services

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering

Abstract

Society complexity and grand challenges, such as climate change, food security and aging population, grow faster than our capacity to engineer the next generation of manufacturing infrastructure, capable of delivering the products and services to address these challenges. The proposed programme aims to address this disparity by proposing a revolutionary new concept of 'Elastic Manufacturing Systems' which will allow future manufacturing operations to be delivered as a service based on dynamic resource requirements and provision, thus opening manufacturing to entirely different business and cost models.

The Elastic Manufacturing Systems concept draws on analogous notions of the elastic/plastic behaviour of materials to allow methods for determining the extent of reversible scaling of manufacturing systems and ways to develop systems with a high degree of elasticity. The approach builds upon methods recently used in elastic computing resource allocation and draws on the principles of collective decision making, cognitive systems intelligence and networks of context-aware equipment and instrumentation. The result will be manufacturing systems able to deliver high quality products with variable volumes and demand profiles in a cost effective and predictable manner. We focus this work on specific highly regulated UK industrial sectors - aerospace, automotive and food - as these industries traditionally are limited in their ability to scale output quickly and cost effectively because of regulatory constraints.

The research will follow a systematic approach outlined in to ensure an integrated programme of fundamental and transformative research supported by impact activities. The work will start with formulating application cases and scenarios to inform the core research developments. The generic models and methods developed will be instantiated, tested and verified using laboratory based testbeds and industrial pilots (S5). It is our intention that - within the framework of the work programme - the research is regularly reviewed, prioritised and and flexibly funded across the 4 years, guided by our Industrial Advisory Board.

Planned Impact

The proposed research is critically important to established and emerging UK industrial sectors and the wider society, and has been formulated following discussions with our industry partners with a focus on delivering specific outputs and clear benefits to key UK industries. The expected results of the project will have a significant long-term impact on strategic, highly regulated sectors including food, automotive and aerospace.

The food and drink industry is the UK's largest manufacturing sector, with a turnover of £104bn in 2018 including exports of £23bn. There is a growing consumer demand for higher quality, higher variety and environmentally friendly products, causing stress to an already fragile supply chain and introducing increasing levels of variability in ingredient supply. One of the key challenges identified by food manufacturers and addressed by this project is produce a consistent product in spite of variable ingredient supply quality and time, and variable demand.

The UK automotive sector has an annual turnover of £72bn including £34bn of exports, accounting for 12% of the UK's total export goods. Elastic manufacturing systems would enable automotive manufacturers to more rapidly adapt to changes in part supply and product demand, mitigating the risks of a just in time system. Constantly changing regulations and corporate requirements will also be more effectively addressed. Luxury manufacturers would be able to more readily offer lower volumes of a wider variety of product lines (including different power trains and specifications for different countries) with levels of customisation not currently cost effective.

The UK is home to the world's second largest aerospace sector and has an annual turnover of £31bn with 90% to export markets. One of the key manufacturing challenges for the sector is the ability to cost effectively produce variable volume, high complexity products while maintaining full design and production capability. This sector will benefit from a new form of small, highly flexible, cognitive and elastic manufacturing facilities with specific emphasis on variable volume automated assembly of airframes and structures. This will enable the production of customised, small-batch, high-quality UK products that remain cost-effective despite fluctuations in demand and supply, and are automatically certified and regulation complaint to reduce overheads to manufacturers.

Though many of the sectors described are driven by large companies their supply chains often include SMEs and are just as affected by the challenges while simultaneously having less capital to invest to solve them. The elastic manufacturing systems concept enables UK SMEs to maximise the productivity of their existing equipment (including legacy and human resources) while also becoming more flexible to demand and product changes, enabling companies to respond to more potential jobs and being less vulnerable to periods of lower demand. Strategic elasticity also enables multiple SMEs to assist one another, forming local manufacturing networks more robust through cooperation.

In addition to the end-user manufacturing sectors listed above, technology providers will also be major beneficiaries of the research. Equipment providers and system integrators will gain standardised approaches to integrating their products with elastic cell design and control, integration, reconfiguration and behaviour adaption. Software and control systems vendors will gain valuable applications for some of their manufacturing control software products and development environments.

Finally, the wider public will benefit through the increased ability of companies to respond to consumer need and reduce product costs through the increased resilience and responsiveness of their manufacturing systems and improved product quality. This will help improve the UK manufacturing sector's global competitiveness, boosting the UK economy and securing jobs.

Publications

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