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UK researchers squeeze more power from solar cells

Thu, 2018-04-19 23:40

A new effect that could one day squeeze more power from photovoltaic solar cells has been demonstrated by UK researchers.

In a paper published in the journal Science, researchers at the Warwick University have demonstrated that more energy could be generated by photovoltaic solar cells by deforming the crystals within the semiconductors, simply by pressing on them.

Silicon solar cells typically consist of two layers, p- and n-type semiconductors, which are placed together to form a p-n junction.

When light is absorbed by the cell, this p-n junction generates an internal field within the device, which splits the charge carriers in opposite directions, generating a current and voltage across the junction.

While such junctions play a crucial role in extracting power from solar cells, they have a fundamental efficiency limit, known as the Shockley-Queisser Limit. This means that only 33.7 per cent of the power contained in sunlight falling on an ideal solar cell in ideal conditions can be converted into electricity.

To find out if this limit could be overcome, the researchers turned to a less well known effect known as the bulk photovoltaic effect. This effect is only found in certain semiconducting materials which have a lack of symmetry around their central point, known as a non-centrosymmetric structure, according to Prof Marin Alexe, who led the research.

“This is a type of symmetry which allows for the spontaneous splitting of those light-induced carriers without any requirement for a p-n junction,” said Alexe.

However, these materials have very low power generation efficiencies of up to six per cent, compared to up to 26 per cent for p-n junction photovoltaic solar cells, he said.

So the researchers wondered if they could re-create this bulk photovoltaic effect in conventional semiconductors used in solar cells, by forcing them into a non-centrosymmetric structure.

“Our idea was to introduce an inhomogeneous strain into the material, which breaks the symmetry locally, meaning the bulk photovoltaic effect kicks in,” said Alexe.

To do this, they pushed the semiconductors into shape using conductive tips from atomic force microscopy devices.

They found that when they squeezed individual crystals of strontium titanate, titanium dioxide, and silicon in this way, all three were able to show the bulk photovoltaic effect.

This so-called flexo-photovoltaic effect may one day give commercial solar cells an additional efficiency boost, he said.

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Leeds art student takes top prize in Hyundai design challenge

Thu, 2018-04-19 17:22

Emily Armistead, a student at Leeds Art School, has won a design competition run by Hyundai that challenged entrants to create a futuristic vehicle interior.

Innovators of the Future asked students to imagine what the inside of a sports utility vehicle (SUV) might look like in 50 years’ time, and what sort of materials might be used in its construction. For her entry, Emily envisaged a time when deteriorating climatic conditions will mean a scarcity of daylight and extreme weather conditions are the norm. Her choice of design and materials sought to use iridescence and reflection to create an “ethereal design concept” – as she puts it.

“Think about living in a place where daylight is scarce and extreme weather conditions were part of the norm,” Emily said to The Engineer. “I proposed a radical future vision of an SUV interior based on the increasing concerns surrounding climate change and the adverse impact of living unsustainably. Galvanised by an intrepid curiosity for the future, the design seeks to imagine possible projections through the speculation of how things could be.

“Inspired by the extreme effects of climate change, this ethereal design concept creates diversity in colour, texture and form exploring conspicuous themes of iridescence and reflection through the interaction of light and reflective surfaces. Optical properties including colour, luminosity, photosensitivity and reflectivity are scrutinised through a variety of materials to create intriguing and immersive surfaces for the cabin interior. The materials used in this story have a tranquil quality, appearing melted, frozen, thawed, cracked, cloudy or vaporous.”

As part of her prize for winning the competition, Emily will travel to Seoul, South Korea, where she will meet with representatives of Hyundai and tour the company’s facilities. She will also receive a cash prize of £1,000 and is hopeful her design can influence how interiors of the future are developed for production vehicles.

“If we were to imagine a place where we felt tranquil, the majority of us would envision a natural setting,” she said. “The interior of the Hyundai SUV of the future is designed with the objective to reaffirm our connection to nature and help us to embrace our surroundings. The minimalist design blends ethereal and lustrous materials with revolutionary technology to advocate a feeling of calm and enhance the driving experience.”

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When ill-informed marketing drives bad design decisions

Thu, 2018-04-19 16:07

Engineers have a responsibility to improve processes and decrease our ecological impact, yet time and again – writes the secret engineer – we are forced by the Smoke and Mirrors Department into reinforcing illogical practices. 

I recently got into an argument with a friend on a certain social network site. Mind you I get into so many arguments on it that I’m convinced that’s the whole reason for its existence – or perhaps its just me?

Power steering: we’re all used to it, but is it really required on all cars?

Anyway, we were talking about the ecological impact of cars and the best way forward. Tesla were lionised, as one would expect, and there were various discussions about the true environmental cost of electric cars. However, what caused absolute apoplexy was my suggestion that it would be more beneficial if we just simplified all vehicles.

My point was that if you consider the powered gizmos (with their sensors) that are standard on all cars these days – and then the wiring to connect them  – and then the power needed to make them work; it all adds up to something quite significant.

Volkswagen made about 11 million vehicles last year and even if you only saved 1 gram of carbon (as a vague indicator of greenness) in each vehicle that’s 11000 kilograms in total. From one manufacturer alone, in one year. My friend though could not even cope with the concept of any new car finding a buyer if its not “fully loaded”.

We spent God knows how long going around in circles with regard to the idea of omitting the power steering. A significant proportion of this time was spent with him arguing about the efficiency of hydraulic and electric systems because he simply could not fundamentally grasp the concept of not fitting it at all. For context, with regard to this particular aspect, I was on about small town cars only.

Now, he’s a successful jet setting business man and hardly a dullard so although I could accept a disagreement I was genuinely shocked that it was based purely in such a deeply entrenched paradigm.

I was reminded of an associated situation when I was designing widgets a few years ago. We were only allowed to claim a certain power for our widget if the draw from the mains supply could be demonstrated, so we would make it work in a particularly inefficient way to get a bigger number on the packaging.

The paradigm then was that the buyer would be mesmerised only by the number without any consideration that this actually meant it performed its function whilst consuming more electricity than a competitor’s machine in a box with a smaller number. Utter lunacy!

Once the expectations and wants of the consumer change we can stop compromising and be let loose to show what we can really do

As an engineer this wanton and unthinking waste of resources is anathema. We have a responsibility to improve processes and designs so that we decrease our ecological impact in this increasingly environmentally aware age, and yet we are forced by the Smoke and Mirrors Department (or “Sales” as they’re otherwise known) – backed by those lacking in vision – into reinforcing these illogical practices.

Its not surprising that we have reached this position after over a century of flagrant consumerism, just that so many remain so brain washed that they are oblivious to it.

So what can we do about it? There has to be education for a start. When all is said and done why should power steering on a small city car be seen as being so essential? It doesn’t have to be hair trigger responsive around corners and it doesn’t have to be steered through the medium of a tiny wheel. There is no reason why the thoughtful application of mechanical advantage alone cannot result in acceptable forces being applied by the driver whilst navigating around a generic supermarket car park.

Equally there is no reason why the vast majority of people cannot understand that they will be better off with a Widget that takes 700 Watts to perform a given function than one that takes 900 Watts. Once the expectations and wants of the consumer change we can stop compromising by investigating ever more sophisticated ways to chip away at protecting our planet and be let loose to show what we can really do instead.

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Video of the week: NTU robots excel at assembling furniture

Thu, 2018-04-19 16:00

This week’s video comes from Singapore where a pair of robots have achieved in 20 minutes what some humans take all weekend to fulfil.

The task in question is assembling IKEA furniture, and scientists at Nanyang Technological University have developed algorithms that enable the robots to take the necessary steps to assemble IKEA’s Stefan chair.

The actual assembly phase took 8 minutes and 55 seconds. Prior to the assembly, the robot took 11 minutes and 21 seconds to plan the motion pathways and three seconds to locate the parts.

Credit: NTU Singapore

Asst Prof Pham Quang Cuong, from NTU’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering said: “For a robot, putting together an IKEA chair with such precision is more complex than it looks.

“The job of assembly, which may come naturally to humans, has to be broken down into different steps, such as identifying where the different chair parts are, the force required to grip the parts, and making sure the robotic arms move without colliding into each other. Through considerable engineering effort, we developed algorithms that will enable the robot to take the necessary steps to assemble the chair on its own.

“We are looking to integrate more artificial intelligence into this approach to make the robot more autonomous so it can learn the different steps of assembling a chair through human demonstration or by reading the instruction manual, or even from an image of the assembled product.”

The results of NTU’s efforts are published in Science Robotics.

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Preliminary findings point to metal fatigue on stricken Southwest Airlines flight

Thu, 2018-04-19 15:14

The engine failure that led to the death of a passenger on board Southwest Airlines flight 1380 is thought to have been caused by metal fatigue.

Photo credit: Stephen Keller

On April 17, 2018 Southwest flight 1380 from New York La Guardia to Dallas Love Field was diverted to Philadelphia approximately 20 minutes after take-off when the cockpit was alerted to a serious anomaly in the aircraft’s number one engine.

According to Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), preliminary investigations have determined that a fan blade from the CFM56-7B engine ‘separated at the point where it would come into the hub’, citing evidence of metal fatigue where the blade separated. He added that it will take between 12 to 15 months to conduct a thorough investigation.

Shrapnel from the damaged engine penetrated the 737-700’s aircraft cabin, leading to the death of one passenger and injuries to seven others.

Southwest Airlines is now ‘accelerating its existing engine inspection program relating to the CFM56 engine family’, which is expected to be completed over the next 30 days and will involve ultrasonic inspections of fan blades. Technicians from engine manufacturer CFM International are assisting with this effort.

“Whilst the apparent ‘missing front fan blade’ is interesting, the investigation will also need to focus on the detailed maintenance history of all the engine components, in addition to any relevant aircraft performance data,” said Dr Stephen Wright, aviation lecturer at Leeds University.

Dr Wright explained via email that detecting metal fatigue and similar anomalies have been a routine maintenance activity for many years, specifically for routine engine inspections.

“For instance, the combustor linings for gas turbine are known to be fragile and can crack/deform/ wear in a service operation,” he said. “This is mitigated by both the manufacturers and the operators by routinely borescoping the inside of the engine.

“Furthermore, the videos and images taken are compared to previous content to check if noticeable changes have been detected. If so, this would realistically require a maintenance corrective action – the defective parts are removed and new serviceable parts are installed by a licensed aircraft engineer.

“When the parts are off the aircraft and in the repair station a more thorough level of investigation can be performed that would be impractical whilst the engine is on the aircraft wing.”

Dr Wright added that an interim investigation may ask for similar aircraft to be inspected. To this end, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is set to issue an Airworthiness Directive (AD) that will require inspections of certain CFM56-7B engines. According to FAA, the directive will require an ultrasonic inspection of fan blades when they reach a certain number of take-offs and landings. Any blades that fail the inspection will have to be replaced.

The CFM56-7B is produced by CFM International, an equal joint venture between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines. The engine came into service in 1997 and accumulated over 350 million flight hours with more than 6,700 aircraft worldwide.

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UK’s Vert Rotors hails portable air compressor breakthrough

Thu, 2018-04-19 15:08

Portable air compressor will allow manufacturers to deliver high levels of compressed air wherever and whenever they need it.

Vert Rotors’ Nautilus compressor

The UK developer of a newly launched portable air compressor technology claims that it could help combat one of manufacturing’s most enduring health and safety problems.

Developed by Edinburgh firm Vert Rotors, the Nautilus is a lightweight, portable air compressor claimed to deliver pressure on demand that was previously only achievable using large, static compressors.

What’s more, whilst existing compressors typically operate at very high noise levels, which have been shown to cause damage to employee hearing, the Nautilus is claimed to be much quieter, and therefore safe to use in any working environment.

The key to Vert Rotors technology is an innovative conical screw compressor – a new type of new type of gas compressor, where the inner screw works inside the outer screw, and not side-by-side.

The system produces compressed air at 300psi but generates noise levels of just 65dB(A), about the same as an air conditioner. Conventional piston compressors are not only larger, but operate at high noise levels, typically around 100dB(A), which have been shown to damage hearing and lead to other workplace conditions.

Commenting on the technology Olly Dmitriev, CEO of Vert Rotors said: “The Nautilus can be easily wheeled to the point of use and connected directly. There is no need to install air lines to transport the pressurised air, an expensive process that takes weeks to accomplish and disrupts the normal production cycles, costing the business precious time and money.

Dmitriev hopes that the technology could grab a share of a global market for industrial compressors that’s expected to reach approximately $43.54bn by 2025. “We are on the cusp of an industry-wide revolution in how we deliver compressed air,” he said.

Dmitriev told The Engineer that the first Nautilus was purchased by a telecom company from the USA, whilst the second system was  shipped earlier this month (April 2018) to a billion-Euro Austrian industrial giant.

Vert CEO Ollie Dmitriev will be telling the story behind the firm’s technology on day one of The Engineer Conference, which runs from 5th – 7th June at the NEC, Birmingham. Click here to view the full programme and register for free for the event.

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Biocompatible nanotubes promise better cancer targeting

Thu, 2018-04-19 15:04

New biocompatible nanotubes developed by UK researchers have the potential to target cancer cells better than treatments such as chemotherapy, according to a new study.  

Led by Dr Ben Newland from Cardiff University’s School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the study tested the effectiveness of nanotubes made from a non-toxic polymer called poly(ethylene glycol). Unlike existing nanotubes, these new variants are soft, flexible and biocompatible.

“With the development of a brand new type of nanotube, we are in unchartered territory,” said Dr Newland. “We are in the early stages of this research, but it’s exciting to think about the potential improvements in the way that drugs are delivered.”

Alongside Cardiff University, researchers from the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research in Dresden and Strathclyde University also contributed to the study. The team explored how effective the new nanotube could be in treating breast cancer, delivering the same dose of the drug Doxorubicin locally as well as via the bloodstream. It was found that the nanotube delivery method resulted in a reduction in both the rate of metastasis and the rate of tumour growth, leading the researchers to conclude that it has the potential to improve cancer therapies.

The team is also confident that treating cancer in this way could significantly reduce the side effects experienced by patients. Many drugs used in chemotherapy to treat various forms of cancer are administered through an injection into the bloodstream. Although these drugs reach cancer cells, they also negatively impact on healthy cells causing an array of side-effects including hair loss, sickness and extreme fatigue. As the poly(ethylene glycol) nanotube has the potential to be injected into a specific area, the rest of the body is left largely unaffected by the toxic anti-cancer drugs.

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Why the nuclear sector presents huge collaboration potential for UK plc

Wed, 2018-04-18 20:08

To achieve its aims the nuclear sector must be open to ideas and expertise from other areas of industry.  Professor Andrew Sherry, Chief Scientist, National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) examines the opportunities for collaboration

With the UK seeking to replace and decommission its fleet of advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors, our industry is on the cusp of major change.

This change will spark a series of major engineering projects, likely to create a plethora of opportunities for businesses looking to collaborate with the sector over the next decade.

What those projects will look like is the focus of big debate. Should they build big like Hinkley Point C, which requires significant investment upfront and will take many years before revenue is generated? Or would it be more economical to commit to a series of smaller projects that are easier to get off the ground financially and will produce a faster return on investment across the nuclear sector?

Hinkley Point C in Somerset will be the first of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Finding ways to do nuclear more economically is an imperative for the industry – and discovering the methods by which we can achieve this is a key objective for the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). If we are to achieve this mission we also recognise that we cannot afford to be insular in our approach.

We must be open to ideas coming into our sector from the outside. That desire to build partnerships is so strong that Innovation through Collaboration is the theme of our annual NNL Sci Tec conference this year.

Nuclear sector Collaboration

When you take a closer look at the nuclear sector, you can see that there is huge scope for collaboration. Far from being distinct from other industries, there is an enormous amount of overlap. For example, we share a lot of materials and manufacturing commonality with sectors such as the oil and gas and chemical industries.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that we are dealing with a nuclear core – and that has a clear impact on our culture which is particularly risk averse. Our approach to safety, which we refer to as ‘defence in depth’, is embedded into the regulatory regime. But when you examine a nuclear power station, you can see that, in essence, much is a civil construction project like any other – with concrete, pumps, valves and welds. Hence our keen interest in working more closely with businesses operating outside of nuclear to bring in modern technologies that can enhance safety and reduce costs.

We want to bring in fresh thinking and are constantly reviewing technology and techniques being deployed elsewhere. This could be everything from reviewing how laser cutting is being used to decommission oil platforms to how advanced manufacturing technologies are producing components for aerospace faster. We are also looking at innovations such as digital technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence, to see if they have a place in waste management and inspections as well as advanced manufacturing technologies such as electron beam welding and hot isostatic pressing.

Importantly, fresh thinking can come in the form of business processes too. I recently chaired a roundtable discussion at the Royal Academy of Engineering with leaders from big UK industries including shipbuilding, satellites, digital and rail construction. What was clear from that discussion is that we all encounter the same business problems: collaboration in the supply chain, programme and risk management, financing and the ability to nurture culture and our future leaders.

For example, we all acknowledged that if we don’t widen our nuclear sector supply chains, we’ll get the same answer every time and never hear new ideas. There’s a lot to be gained from talking to different industries – especially when it comes to managing major engineering projects. Just look at the Olympic build or Crossrail. These were enormous civil construction programmes and we can learn a lot from the way they managed to reduce and share the risks involved with their suppliers.

International outlook

For those organisations wanting to collaborate with the nuclear industry, there are also growing opportunities to export expertise, products and services. This will only be heightened as our domestic civil nuclear programme starts to move away from advanced gas-cooled reactors, which are unique to the UK, and embraces light water reactor technologies.

We’ve witnessed a real groundswell of pro-nuclear thought in recent years, including amongst some of the environmental community

The nuclear community is also very international in nature, as there is a recognition that development in one country will quickly impact the rest of the world. This allows for expertise originating in the UK to spread to other countries, be that the Far East, Europe, the Middle East or the US.

We can’t ignore the fact that public perception of nuclear varies from country to country, and political decisions can impact demand for nuclear power, but the prospects for the industry internationally are extremely bright. We’ve witnessed a real groundswell of pro-nuclear thought in recent years, including amongst some of the environmental community. There is a recognition that if we are serious about tackling global warming then nuclear energy is one of the most important low carbon alternatives available to us.

When looking at the nuclear sector, the situation can be summed up by echoing the sentiments of Lord Hutton in last year’s House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report. In essence, do we want to be a country that does nuclear, or a country that has nuclear done to us? We clearly believe that we should be the former, and with international energy requirements growing rapidly, there are huge incentives for UK businesses to drive innovation within the nuclear industry to generate low-carbon, low-cost nuclear electricity and to decommission our nuclear legacy safely and cost-effectively.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY NEWS

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BMW Group to invest over €10m in new Additive Manufacturing Campus

Wed, 2018-04-18 19:48

BMW Group is investing over €10m in a new Additive Manufacturing Campus based in Oberschleissheim, a move that will concentrate the company’s 3D printing expertise at a single location.

Additive manufacturing at BMW

According to BMW, much of the work carried out at the Additive Manufacturing Campus will focus on parts manufacturing for prototype construction, series production and customised solutions.

Located in an existing building with a footprint of over 6,000 square metres, it will accommodate up to 80 staff and over 30 industrial systems for metals and plastics. It is scheduled to go on stream in early 2019.

Jens Ertel, head of the BMW Group’s Additive Manufacturing Centre and the future campus director, said: “Our new facility will be a major milestone in additive manufacturing at the BMW Group.

“The team there will evaluate new and existing technologies in both plastics and metals printing and develop them to series maturity. Our goal is to provide the optimum technology and process chain, be it for individual components, small production runs or even large-scale manufacturing.”

AM at BMW

Additive manufacturing has already been used to generate parts for the BMW i8 Roadster.

“With the BMW i8 Roadster, the BMW Group became the first carmaker to 3D-print a production run of several thousand metal parts,” said Ertel. “The component concerned is a fixture in the tonneau cover for the soft-top.”

Made of aluminium alloy, the printed item is lighter than the normal injection-moulded equivalent but significantly more rigid.

The company has employed Additive manufacturing in the MINI Yours Customised programme, which allows customers to design certain components, such as indicator inlays and dashboard trim strips, to precise specifications.

AM part from BMW i8 RoadsterOngoing investment

In September 2016, the BMW Group’s venture capital arm, BMW i Ventures, invested in the Silicon Valley-based company Carbon, whose DLS (digital light synthesis) printing technology was a breakthrough in the production of parts with high-quality surfaces. The technique allows significantly larger areas to be processed more rapidly than would otherwise be possible with conventional selective 3D printing. Carbon and the BMW Group have been partners since 2015.

A further investment in additive manufacturing came in February 2017, this time in the start-up Desktop Metal. Desktop Metal specialises in the additive manufacturing of metal components and has developed highly productive and innovative methodologies. It now works closely with the Additive Manufacturing Centre at the BMW Group.

In June 2017 the BMW Group invested in a company called Xometry, which works in the supply chain industry. Xometry is a web-based platform that networks suppliers and manufacturers from different sectors with each other. Pilot projects are already underway in a range of areas including spare parts manufacturing.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE MANUFACTURING NEWS

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WorldSkills UK Live takes up baton of The Skills Show

Wed, 2018-04-18 17:45

The annual careers and skills event formerly known as The Skills Show has been renamed as WorldSkills UK Live for this year’s edition.

Last year’s international WorldSkills event saw 59 countries competing across 51 different skills 

Taking place from 15 – 17 November at the NEC Birmingham, Worldskills UK Live claims to be the biggest event of its kind in the country. The Skills Show, which launched in 2012, attracted over 70,000 visitors last year and hosted the prestigious National Finals of the WorldSkills UK Competitions. As the finals form the centrepiece of the event, it was decided to rebrand the show to reflect their importance. The show also provides a forum for young people to meet with employers and training providers, as well as find out about career options such as apprenticeships and further learning.

“We are excited to announce that The Skills Show will now be known as WorldSkills UK Live,” said Dr Neil Bentley, chief executive of WorldSkills UK.

“Live will build on achievements to date, creating more vibrant and dynamic activity, enabling thousands more young people to speak with employers, colleges, independent training providers and apprentices about their career options and choices.

“By aligning more closely with the WorldSkills UK brand, it reinforces the important role of the National Finals, which will continue to be centre stage at the event and how this leads to the UK competing on the global stage.”

CAD Skills – Taking on the world

The best and brightest that compete in the National Finals will go on to represent the UK at the biennial international WorldSkills event, which will take place next year in Kazan, Russia. In Abu Dhabi last year, 59 different countries competed against one another across 51 different skills events at WorldSkills 2017.

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36 reasons to come to The Engineer’s 2018 conference in June

Wed, 2018-04-18 16:32

The Engineer’s 2018 conference, which runs from 5th – 7th June at the NEC, Birmingham features a number of UK industry’s most prominent engineers, as well as insight into some of its most inspiring projects and the technologies and trends that are shaping the future of UK engineering and manufacturing. 

Keynote speakers at this year’s conference include Rolls Royce CTO Paul Stein – who will be talking about the disruptive technologies that are shaping the aerospace sector; Mclaren Applied Technology CTO Dr Caroline Hargrove – who will explain how the lessons learned in motorsport are being applied to fields as diverse as healthcare, manufacturing and energy; and GKN Driveline CEO Phil Swash, who will be talking about the irresistible rise of automotive electrification.

Delegates will hear the engineering story behind the BAC Mono supercar

Running across three-days in two-theatres, the conference features 36 different sessions  touching on topics including innovation strategy, manufacturing and supply chain management; digitalisation, driverless cars, robotics, augmented reality, Blockchain, and 3D printing.

VIEW THE FULL PROGRAMME AND REGISTER FOR FREE HERE

A key theme of this year’s conference is cross-sector collaboration and technology transfer, and delegates will be able to gain valuable insight on how to tap into innovations from other sectors, and how to effectively collaborate with specialists from different disciplines.

Alongside Mclaren’s Dr Caroline Hargrove, we’ll also be hearing how Mclaren rival Williams achieves the same trick, with a presentation from Williams Advanced Engineering’s technical director Paul McNamara, whilst BAE Systems’ Dr Henry White will explain to delegates how technology from the defence sector is being applied to the world of sport.

Other programme highlights include cybernetics specialist Nadine Stech senior designer of Linx, the world’s most intelligent prosthetic limb, celebrated UK supercar developer Neill Briggs, and Fujitsu UK CTO Graeme Wright, who will treat visitors to an explanation of Blockchain and how it can be applied to the engineering supply chain. Visitors will also be able to hear about the latest developments in driverless cars from Jaguar Land Rover’s head of autonomous projects Mark Cund, and from  Mircosoft director Leila Martine on industrial applications of the company’s HoloLens mixed reality technology.

Rolls Royce CTO Paul Stein will discuss disruptive technology in the aerospace sector

On the manufacturing side, the conference programme will cover everything from the practicalities of implementing Industry 4.0 technology to the latest developments in 3D printing, composite materials, and advanced metrology technologies.

Highlights here include Xaar’s, Professor Neil Hopkinson, one of the pioneers of 3D printing in the UK, who will explore how manufacturers can use 3D printing for part production; AMRC’s head of digital Prof Rab Scott, who will explain how SMEs can tap into the opportunities afforded by Industry 4.0; Prof Dame Jane Jiang – who heads up the EPSRC’s Future Metrology hub; and Cranfield University’s Director of Manufacturing Prof Raj Roy, who will examine the cybersecurity challenges presented by the connected factory of the future. 

The Engineer Conference runs alongside The Engineer Expo and Subcon 2018 from 5 – 7th  June at the NEC, Birmingham.

VIEW THE FULL PROGRAMME AND REGISTER FOR FREE HERE

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Algorithm tool could help law enforcement agencies protect children online

Wed, 2018-04-18 16:10

A new algorithm tool could help law enforcement agencies filter out and focus on sex offenders most likely to set up face-to-face meetings with child victims.

The Chat Analysis Triage Tool (CATT) was presented by Kathryn Seigfried-Spellar, assistant professor of computer and information technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute, during the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts Conference in Anaheim, California.

The FBI estimates that 750,000 adults seek sex with youths on a daily basis, and in 2015 the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces arrested over 60,000 internet sex offenders.

However, investigating crimes against children –  specifically sexual solicitations – are complicated as some offenders are motivated by sexual fantasy chats, with others intent on persuading an underage victim into a face-to-face meeting.

CATT is said to allow officers to work through the volume of solicitations and use algorithms to examine the word usage and conversation patterns by a suspect. Seigfried-Spellar said data was taken from online conversations provided voluntarily by law enforcement agencies.

“We went through and tried to identify language-based differences and factors like self-disclosure,” she said in a statement. Self-disclosure is a tactic used by suspects who share personal stories to develop trust.

“If we can identify language differences, then the tool can identify these differences in the chats in order to give a risk assessment and a probability that this person is going to attempt face-to-face contact with the victim,” Seigfried-Spellar said. “That way, officers can begin to prioritise which cases they want to put resources toward to investigate more quickly.”

Other standout characteristics of sexual predators grooming victims for a face-to-face meeting is that the chats will often go on for weeks or even months until a meeting is achieved. Those involved in sexual fantasy chatting move on from one youth to another more quickly.

The project started as a result of a partnership with Ventura County Sheriff’s Department in California.

Seigfried-Spellar said the research discovered tactics like self-disclosure are generally used early in a predator’s talks with a potential victim.

“Meaning that we could potentially stop a sex offence from occurring because if law enforcement is notified of a suspicious chat quickly enough, CATT can analyse and offer the probability of a face-to-face,” she said. “We could potentially prevent a child from being sexually assaulted.”

Seigfried-Spellar developed CATT with associate professor Julia Taylor Rayz, who specialises in machine learning and natural language processing, and computer and information technology department head Marcus Rogers, who has a background in digital forensics tool development.

CATT algorithms examine only the conversation factors and do not take the sex of either suspect or victim into consideration, at this time.

The project began with initial research done by Seigfried-Spellar and former Purdue professor Ming Ming Chiu. The exploratory study examined over 4,300 messages in 107 online chat sessions involving arrested sex offenders, identifying different trends in word usage and self-disclosure by fantasy and contact sex offenders using statistical discourse analysis.

The trends determined through this research formed the basis for CATT. The research, “Detecting Contact vs. Fantasy Online Sexual Offenders in Chats with Minors: Statistical Discourse Analysis of Self-Disclosure and Emotion Words,” has been accepted and will be published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.

Initial plans are to give the tool to several law enforcement departments for tests. Seigfried-Spellar said CATT could be handling data from active cases as early as the end of the year.

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Carbon fibre muscles lift thousands of times their own weight

Wed, 2018-04-18 15:22

A new study from the University of Illinois has found that artificial muscles made from carbon fibre can lift up to 12,600 times their own weight.

(Credit: University of Illinois Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering)

Published in the journal Smart Materials and Structures, the research found the structures could also support up to 60MPa of mechanical stress, provide tensile strokes higher than 25 per cent and specific work of up to 758J/kg. According to the Illinois team, this is 18 times more than the specific work natural muscles can produce.

“The range of applications of these low cost and lightweight artificial muscles is really wide and involves different fields such as robotics, prosthetics, orthotics, and human assistive devices,” said Caterina Lamuta, a postdoctoral fellow that worked on the study.

“The mathematical model we proposed is a useful design tool to tailor the performance of coiled artificial muscles according to the different applications. Furthermore, the model provides a clear understanding of all the parameters that play an important role in the actuation mechanism, and this encourages future research works toward the development of new typologies of fibre-reinforced coiled muscles with enhanced properties.”

The artificial muscles are made from coils of commercial carbon fibre and polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). Bundles of carbon fibres are first dipped in uncured PDMS diluted with hexane and then twisted with a drill to create a yarn that has a homogeneous shape and constant radius. Once the PDMS cures, the straight composite yarn is coiled tightly to create the muscle, which can be activated using voltage, heat or absorption of a solvent.

“To use carbon fibres, we had to understand the mechanism of contraction of coiled muscles,” said Sameh Tawfick (pictured left with Lamuta), assistant professor of mechanical science and engineering at the university.

“Once we uncovered the theory, we learned how to transform carbon fibres into ultra-strong muscles. We simply filled carbon fibre tows with the suitable type of silicone rubber, and their performance was impressive, precisely what we had aimed for.”

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Nanocage aims to trap and release hydrogen on demand

Wed, 2018-04-18 12:00

A “nanocage” capable of trapping and releasing gases on demand could be used to safely store hydrogen on-board cars and other vehicles.

Hydrogen has long been seen as a low-carbon replacement for fossil fuels in transportation. However, as a low-density gas, it is difficult to store safely and compactly within vehicles.

Now researchers at Bristol University, funded by the EPSRC, are developing composite materials capable of adsorbing hydrogen gas and storing it at high densities, within nanometre-sized pores.

What’s more, the materials are being used to allow trapping and release of the hydrogen molecules on demand, according to Dr Valeska Ting, Reader in Smart Nanomaterials at Bristol University.

“Hydrogen is a gas at room temperatures and pressures, so if you want to carry it around it takes up a lot of volume,” said Dr Ting.

This has prompted research into porous materials such as nanostructured carbons, metal-organic frameworks or zeolites, which have a high surface area. These materials act like a sponge, sucking in the hydrogen and storing it in nanometre-sized pores at far higher densities than is possible in gas form.

“Because it is in a solid material, you can carry it around, instead of carrying a giant balloon of hydrogen gas or a high pressure tank,” said Ting.

Unlike existing porous materials though, which typically need to store the gas at very high pressures or very low temperatures in order to carry the amount of hydrogen needed for transportation, these composite materials should allow for use at room temperature.

That is because the team are incorporating active responsive polymers into the composite, which may change their shape in response to light, heat or a magnetic field. In this way the material can be triggered to undergo a change in structure, either blocking or unblocking the pore, to obstruct or allow the movement of gases to or from the pores.

The technique could allow such porous materials to store ten times more hydrogen at room temperature than existing materials, making them far more suitable for use in transportation.

The materials could also potentially be used in carbon dioxide capture, drug delivery and smart packaging.

The project will also involve development of new measurement techniques for hydrogen storage materials, which will be carried out in collaboration with Warrington-based gas sorption specialist Hiden Isochema.

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Graphene spikes kill bacteria to reduce risk of implant rejection

Tue, 2018-04-17 18:52

Medical implants could soon be protected from bacterial infection by tiny spikes of vertical graphene.

Vertical graphene kills bacteria (Photo: Johan Bodell)

The vertical graphene flakes, being developed by a team of researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, have been shown to kill bacteria on impact, in research published in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces.

When added to the surface of implants, they could stop bacterial infections during surgery, which in some severe cases can prevent the devices from attaching to the human bone effectively.

Bacteria travel around the body in blood and other fluids, looking for a surface to cling to. Once they find a suitable surface, such as an implant, they start to propagate, forming a biofilm.

But adding a layer of vertical graphene flakes to the surface prevents the bacteria from forming this biofilm, according to Jie Sun, Associate Professor at the Department of Micro Technology and Nanoscience, Chalmers University of Technology.

This could eliminate the need for antibiotics, and reduce the risk of implant rejection.

“The vertical graphene acts like a knife, it will cut into the bacteria and kill it,” said Sun.

The membrane surrounding bacteria has a very strong affinity for graphene, he said. “So the bacteria will attach themselves to the graphene, and then get cut.”

For stability, the spikes are attached to the surface with roots.

Human cells are much larger than bacteria – 25μm in diameter compared to 1μm – meaning they are not damaged by the graphene spikes.

The researchers are now planning further work to make the graphene spikes suitable for use in medical applications. Firstly, the substrate they have been using to grow the graphene is quite small, around 2.5-5cm across, so they plan to increase its size.

They also hope to reduce the cost of the process, said Sun.

“We cannot grow the graphene directly on medical devices, we have to grow it onto our substrate and then transfer it to the devices, and that process is expensive, so we need to reduce that cost,” he said.

Finally, further experiments will be needed to ensure graphene is not harmful to human cells, in the event that a flake were to come loose, he said.

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UK firm to demonstrate “world’s first” hydrogen-fuelled combustion engine truck

Tue, 2018-04-17 16:16

Engineers at Liverpool-based hydrogen fuel specialist ULEMCo have announced plans to demonstrate a zero-emission truck powered by a hydrogen fuelled combustion engine.

The technology will be demonstrated on a modified version of Volvo’s most powerful truck, the FH16. It is expected to take to the roads later this year.

Claimed to represent the world’s first application of a ‘zero emission’ combustion engine, the project – which has been jointly funded by ULEMCo and Innovate UK – is designed to provide a dramatic demonstration of how hydrogen fuel can be deployed to decarbonise heavy goods vehicles efficiently and cost effectively.

Unlike other ‘hydrogen fuelled’ vehicles, the so-called Mega Low Emissions (MLE) truck uses hydrogen to power the vehicle using a combustion engine rather than via fuel cells and an electric motor. ULEMCo claims that in common with fuel cell versions, there will be none of the usual emissions from hydrocarbons that impact on air quality – such as unburnt fuel, particulates, carbon monoxide etc.

ULEMCo believes that using conventional engines and existing truck designs, rather than the full transformation needed for electrification, the time frame to the target of zero carbon emissions can be shortened significantly whilst simultaneously reducing the cost of the change for customers.

By applying ULEMCo’s knowledge of the efficient combustion of hydrogen and the use of hydrogen fuel directly in combustion engines, a significant simplification of the vehicle emission control systems can be achieved. Using a modified conventional engine, the powertrain cost is minimised and the company is able to demonstrate that zero emissions can be achieved in commercial vehicles at an affordable cost.

ULEMCo has converted many vehicles from diesel to hydrogen dual-fuel, and these are in current active service around the UK. The demonstration vehicle will be the first all-hydrogen example, will have at least 300HP, and with 17kg of hydrogen on board, a range of just under 300km unloaded is expected. As hydrogen storage is the only additional hardware, a smaller reduction in payload is experienced than with other low emission approaches.

The company is targeting commercial fleet retrofits, operating in urban areas such as refuse collection and local deliveries, where back-to-base refuelling can be implemented, or those in proximity to the growing number of publicly accessible stations in the UK and globally. ULEMCo’s growth plans include creating a hydrogen re-fuelling network to capitalise on the existing local infrastructure for this ‘green’ fuel.

“We are hugely excited about the potential for hydrogen fuel as a route to faster achievement of zero carbon emission in commercial vehicles”, said ULEMCo’s CEO Amanda Lyne. “With this MLE demonstrator…we are showing that 100 per cent hydrogen fuel in combustion engines is a practical and cost-effective option. It sits well alongside the hydrogen dual-fuel conversions that we have already implemented commercially.”

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April 1954: The world’s first nuclear submarine

Tue, 2018-04-17 16:10

Spring of 1954 saw The Engineer reporting on USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, a pioneering piece of engineering.

Spring of 1954 saw The Engineer’s American Correspondent reporting on the work of the US Atomic Energy Commission. With the Atomic Age well and truly under way, there was no shortage of news to fill the column inches, including the progress of plants at Savannah River, Paducah and Oak Ridge. But, nearly 65 years on, it’s the report on the USS Nautilus that stands out.

Authorised by Congress three years previously, Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, a pioneering piece of engineering that heralded a new era of military strategy and geopolitics. Its reactor had been even longer in the planning, with Westinghouse Electric Corporation instructed to develop a nuclear power plant for a submarine as far back as 1947. The result was the Submarine Thermal Reactor (STR, later redesignated the S2W), a pressurised water reactor that delivered 13,400hp (10,000kW) of power.

“A number of early American reactors were water cooled,” The Engineer wrote, “and this technology was advanced considerably more by the recent work of Westinghouse on the Submarine Thermal Reactor and on the cancelled large ship reactor project at Bettis Field.”

When our predecessors were reporting on developments, details were still relatively thin on the ground. It was known that the STR had evolved from a prototype constructed and tested by the Argonne National Laboratory in 1953 at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.

The design was also influenced by the Homogeneous Reactor Experiment at Oak Ridge, where potential advantages were thought to include the simple chemical processing of fuel, the simplicity of construction and the elimination of fuel fabrication.

“The experimental operation of the prototype Submarine Thermal Reactor at the National Reactor Testing Station was continued by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation as part of the programme of testing the reactor and its associated equipment,” it was reported by our predecessors. “The results obtained made it possible to improve the actual STR power plant being fabricated by Westinghouse for the first American atomic-powered submarine, which has been christened the USS ‘Nautilus’.”

Commissioned on 30 September 1954, Nautilus would go on to claim numerous records and world-firsts, its onboard nuclear plant delivering capabilities far exceeding what had gone before. Journeying south in 1955 from the port of Groton, Connecticut, she covered 1,100 continuous nautical miles submerged and clocked a total of 1,200 nautical miles in under 90 hours – both records at the time. This level of performance effectively rendered obsolete the anti-submarine warfare that had evolved during the war. An entirely new game of sub-surface cat and mouse was emerging, one that played out through the Cold War and continues to shape the global balance of power to this day. The paradigm shift is perhaps best illustrated by one of Nautilus’s greatest achievements: the first submarine transit of the North Pole. Labelled Operation Sunshine, the mission was precipitated by the Sputnik crisis, the Soviet satellite launch triggering something of an existential watershed in the US. Eisenhower needed something in the American locker to counteract the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat that Sputnik’s success had laid bare. The US was lagging behind in the Space Race, but Nautilus could provide a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability that could keep the Russians in check. For the gambit to work, however, the sub had to be able to transit the pole.

An initial effort in June 1958 was thwarted by drift ice in the Chukchi Sea, but a second attempt that began in late July proved more fruitful. On 3 August, Nautilus became the first vessel to reach the geographic North Pole, and after 96 hours and 1,590 nautical miles under the ice, surfaced north-east of Greenland. A helicopter airlifted Commander William R Anderson from the deck of the sub, and he connected with a military transport plane which took him to Washington DC. At a White House ceremony on 8 August, Anderson was awarded the Legion of Merit and the crew received a Presidential Unit Citation – a mark of just how strategically important the polar transit had been.

Decommissioned in 1980, today Nautilus is a museum ship in Groton. She was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982.

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International team engineers plastic digesting enzyme

Tue, 2018-04-17 16:07

Scientists from Portsmouth University and the Diamond Light Source are part of an international team that has engineered an enzyme with the potential to digest certain plastics.

The discovery could lead to a recycling solution for the millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which will persist for hundreds of years in the environment.

The research was led by teams at the Portsmouth University and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Portsmouth University’s Prof John McGeehan and Dr Gregg Beckham at NREL solved the crystal structure of PETase – an enzyme that digests PET- and used this 3D information to understand how it works. During this study, they unintentionally engineered an enzyme that is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that has already evolved.

The researchers are now working on improving the enzyme so that it can be used industrially to break down plastics in a fraction of the time.

Prof McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said: “We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’, must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions.”

Prof John McGeehan (CREDIT Stefan Venter, UPIX Photography)

The researchers made the breakthrough when they were examining the structure of a natural enzyme which is thought to have evolved in a waste recycling centre in Japan, allowing a bacterium to degrade plastic as a food source.

PET was patented as a plastic in the 1940s, so the team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it. The goal was to determine its structure, but they ended up engineering an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics.

“Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics,” said Prof McGeehan.

The research team can now apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it.

Portsmouth University and NREL collaborated with scientists at the Diamond Light Source. Using beamline I23, an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the PETase enzyme was generated.

Beamline I23

With help from the computational modelling scientists at the University of South Florida and Brazil’s University of Campinas, the team discovered that PETase looks very similar to a cutinase (an enzyme it had likely evolved from), but it has some unusual features including a more open active site cleft that is able to accommodate man-made rather than natural polymers. These differences indicated that PETase may have evolved in a PET-containing environment to enable the enzyme to degrade PET. To test that hypothesis, the researchers mutated the PETase active site to make it more like a cutinase.

The researchers found that the PETase mutant was better than the natural PETase in degrading PET. The enzyme can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles.

Prof McGeehan said: “The engineering process is much the same as for enzymes currently being used in bio-washing detergents and in the manufacture of biofuels – the technology exists and it’s well within the possibility that in the coming years we will see an industrially viable process to turn PET and potentially other substrates like PEF, PLA, and PBS, back into their original building blocks so that they can be sustainably recycled.”

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This week’s poll: Has the industry 4.0 era finally dawned?

Tue, 2018-04-17 15:29

For many manufacturers the grandiose concept of a fourth industrial revolution has been unhelpfully hyperbolic. But is Industry 4.0 now beginning to move into the realm of day-today reality?

AMRC demonstrates a Industry 4.0 enabled Bridgport Milling Machine

For anyone with a stake in engineering and technology Industry 4.0 – manufacturing’s version of the internet of things – has become an unavoidable buzzword over the past few years.

And as with any buzzword, whilst it may be catchy and trip nicely off the tongue of politicians, it’s fair to say that industry in general has struggled to define exactly what it is, and articulate clearly how it can benefit manufacturers of all shapes and sizes.

It seems that this is now beginning to change.

At last week’s MACH trade-show, the UK’s biggest showcase of manufacturing technology, Industry 4.0 loomed large with manufacturers large and small showcasing equipment with Industry 4.0 features, and trumpeting the productivity-enhancing benefits of increased levels of data and connectivity.

Most interestingly – in a concerted effort to counter the perception that Industry 4.0 requires the kind of investment only available to big tier ones and OEMs – there was a strong emphasis on how SMEs can also tap into its advantages. By far the most compelling illustration of this could be found on the stand occupied by Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), which had equipped two ageing workhorses of the machine shop – a Bridgport Milling machine and a 1956 Colchester Bantam lathe – with low cost, performance enhancing digital technologies.

In this week’s poll we’re asking readers for their own take on Industry 4.0. Has it finally moved beyond the hype? And is it beginning to have an impact on the way your business operates? In short, has the Industry 4.0 era finally dawned?

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Siemens outlines benefits and requirements for the digital factory

Mon, 2018-04-16 21:17

There probably isn’t much you can teach Siemens about manufacturing, a company that has been in the UK for 170 years and currently employs around 15,000 staff at 14 sites around the country.

The company remains committed to the UK as recent investments – £200m into a rail manufacturing facility, and £27m toward a new 3D printing factory – show.

Despite its size and reach, Siemens is no different to any other manufacturer that has seen – and seized – the opportunities brought about through Industry 4.0 and the digitalisation technologies that have made it happen.

In his ‘New skills for the Digital Era’ presentation at MACH 2018, Alan Norbury, Siemens Industrial CTO, gave delegates an insight into how they can embrace – or improve upon – Ind 4.0 and the skills challenges that lay ahead inside the digital factory.

For the majority of manufacturers, Ind 4.0 will be implemented as a series of modifications to plant and processes. Turning standalone items of machinery into IoT devices is relatively straightforward if those pieces of machinery have a suitable port that connects them to the internet.

As Norbury explained, connected devices are just one piece of the bigger digital jigsaw that includes virtual or augmented systems, digital twins, cyber-physical systems, big data, advanced robotics, cloud services, additive manufacturing or prototyping, and cyber security.

“Digitalisation changes all our lives,” said Norbury. “It changes the way we stay informed, it changes the way travel, it changes the way we buy things. It also changes the way we manufacture products.”

A digital twin proves a product in the virtual world before it comes to life in the physical world, whilst cyber-physical systems close the loop on the digital twin, feeding data from the manufacturing process back into the virtual world to optimise manufacturing without impacting on production.

Smart algorithms and AI help to make sense of colossal swathes of big data, and cloud services can help access that data on a global scale, from the factory floor to the supply chain.

Advanced robotics like cobots working alongside humans can undertake repetitive tasks very accurately and to a very high quality, and additive gives manufacturers the opportunity to make parts with geometries and properties that weren’t possible before.

And where the second industrial revolution heralded mass production, the fourth points – potentially – to mass customisation.

The possibilities are seemingly endless, from machines that self-heal to machines that change jobs because of information received about a delay in the supply chain. Underpinning these changes will be the humans inside the digital factory that will have what Norbury describes as hybrid skills.

“We need the skills to be able to work in a virtual environment, we need to be able to work with robotics…we also need a combination of skills – hybrid skills, where the IT people are working with engineering people who are working with the design people,” he said.

To this end, Norbury helped run a project at the City of Liverpool College that focussed on a robot arm and conveyor system built by engineering students. They programmed the arm to take products from a rack and lift them on to the conveyor. Sensors were added to the process which monitors temperatures and humidity with the information sent to a cloud-based platform that IT students built. They then worked on interpreting the data to create diagnostics to help improve efficiency and reduce downtime. Gaming students then took the CAD file from the robot and conveyor which allowed them to create a digital version and build a 3D environment for it.

By the end of the project the engineering, IT and gaming students were certified ‘Ind 4.0 ready’ and able to take those collaborative, hybrid skills into the workplace. As with so many exciting new opportunities, getting the right skills in the right place will make it happen, as will fostering a workplace culture that embraces the new opportunities, a process that starts in the boardroom and filters down.

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