Demonstrating automation innovation to UK manufacturers

Facing a distinct shift in the market towards low volume production of highly personalised products, the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) were challenged with demonstrating how this could become a reality for the UK manufacturing industry.
16 min read
Featuring comments from
Luke MullinsSenior Advisor, Robotics & Automation, MTC
Hannah EdmondsChief Engineer, Digital Manufacturing Accelerator
Charles WhitfordDirector Northwest and Regions, Strategic Development

The MTC is an independent research and technology organisation whose objective is to support UK manufacturing by bridging the gap between academia and industry. The Digital Manufacturing Accelerator programme (DMA) is a partnership between Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the MTC to invest in and develop UK manufacturers and their workforce to successfully build global competitiveness.

The DMA programme has developed the infrastructure and ecosystem to advance the deployment of new digital and automation technologies. Industrial use cases which demonstrate these new technologies were also developed and these are being used as platforms for industrial research and development. The DMA capabilities are accessible national assets which are supporting the creation of a more efficient, agile and productive manufacturing sector in the UK.

Keeping up with market demand

Luke Mullins, MTC’s Senior Advisor in Robotics & Automation spoke about how the collaboration between Labman and MTC came about. He talked about the demand across various industries, particularly in fast-moving-consumer-goods, for more efficient machinery to reduce changeover times, reduce costs, reduce waste and increase the level of personalisation possible. The concept of a Customised Personal Care Product Manufacturing Line was introduced and the MTC sought out Labman to develop and build it.

Having previously partnered with Labman on a small scale project, Luke was aware of the challenge facing them to deliver a high risk, innovative system within a very short timeframe. The goal was to develop a system capable of manufacturing low batch sizes very quickly and efficiently at a low cost.

The mixing and dosing module on this system uses a much smaller (6 litre) cylindrical tank into which a set ratio of materials are continuously pumped and mixed. The base of the tank forces the product to one end, much like a piston, to dispense the product while ensuring minimal waste as the sides of the tank are ‘scraped clean’. This keeps the recipe correct but allows any sized batch to be produced with very little waste, and minimal cleaning.

Luke talked about benefit of this capability being built into the system, including automated cleaning and quality checks, which typically would have to be done manually.

"It’s allowed us to significantly reduce waste, both in terms of waste product and waste water during the cleaning cycle. That decrease in waste is around 10-12 fold vs industry, which is hugely significant when you’re talking about large scale manufacture. "
"Labman were extremely professional above all else. They were able to understand the challenge that we presented to them very effectively, understand the risks and were able to manage those risks all the way through, to stop costs going up and timelines going up. They pushed back on us to define areas of the project which were less defined."
Luke MullinsSenior Advisor, Robotics & Automation, MTC

The DMA’s Chief Engineer, Dr Hannah Edmonds, explained how the innovative elements of the physical system delivered by Labman compliment the digital technologies which have been integrated into the Customised Personal Care Product Manufacturing Line.

"The functionality of the line allows us to really showcase the impact of digital technologies in a real world industrial application. Adaptive scheduling, dynamically adjusting production orders in response to demand, shows the time and cost savings that can be achieved in the automated production of customised products at volume. Also, continuous process monitoring and data capture allow for automated decision making and ensures product quality while maintaining process efficiency."
Dr Hannah EdmondsChief Engineer, Digital Manufacturing Accelerator, MTC

She also highlighted how the digital aspects of this use case are hosted on the DMA’s Digital Factory Environment.

“Our digital sandpit allows us to experiment with modifications to the system in the virtual world. We can evaluate the benefits and de-risk implementation of changes using the process digital twin and virtual commissioning, which limits disruption to production in the real world.”

Charlie Whitford, Director Northwest and Regions, Strategic Development, spoke about the overall objective of the DMA programme which was to showcase digitalisation and automation capabilities to the UK manufacturing industry to unlock private sector investment.

"The final solution that’s been developed with Labman and the team far exceeds expectations that were set at the beginning of the project. We’re seeing private sector investment flowing into developing these solutions into industry further."
Charlie WhitfordDirector Northwest and Regions, Strategic Development, MTC