(formerly MRI) has been a centre for research excellence in materials since
1990. This excellence was recognised in 2001 when the Research Assessment Exercise
(RAE) awarded a 5 rating to the research carried out at MRI. This makes MERI
the highest rated department of its type in the new university sector and rated
alongside the materials departments of universities such as Liverpool and Queen
research and consultancy activities are supported by a large advanced equipment
base ranging from the latest electron microscopes to high performance computing
Increasingly, factory owners and managers are seeking the advice of third parties
to help them appraise their operational practices. These third parties are,
of course, offering consultancy services and tend to have considerable industry
experience. However, a developing trend is to consult with academia, and in
particular recognised research institutes.
One such 'new age consultancy' is Sheaf
Solutions, a consultancy arm of the Materials
and Engineering Research Institute (MERI) and part of Sheffield Hallam University.
Solutions boasts a combination of systems engineering experience and operational
analysis (and technology) capabilities, all of which - the consultancy claims
- enable businesses to increase revenue, reduce lead times, eliminate waste
and improve overall cost efficiency.
True, 'traditional' consultancies make similar claims. So what are the benefits
of working with academia? Dr. David Clegg, a leading consultant with Sheaf
Solutions, says: "There's no one thing, but the modelling and simulation
capabilities residing within the UK's universities is a large factor. Also,
universities tend to have a wide exposure to process modelling, automation and
robotics - from a variety of industrial sectors."
Dr. Clegg goes on to explain that companies seem to place more trust in academia,
valuing the impartiality of the advice from universities and research institutes.
Additionally, the services are often supported through funds and grants -
of which traditional consultancies would have little if any access.
Solutions comprises a core of six lead consultants who, on a project-by-project
basis, draw on the skills and expertise of up to 30 lecturing academics and
several PhD students. It works with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)
as well as larger companies in a variety of industrial sectors aerospace, automotive,
healthcare, manufacturing and the service industries.
According to Dr. Clegg, computer simulation is becoming increasingly important
in many projects, particularly where changes to processes are to be made. Specifically,
simulated models can accurately predict key 'performance indicators',
such as lead times, resource utilisation and waiting times.
Simulation is also widely used to identify systems bottlenecks and develop
strategies to eliminate them. For example, in 2007 Joint Replacement Instrumentation
(JRI) employed the services of Sheaf Solutions to model its manufacturing processes,
and identify potential bottlenecks, before moving to larger premises. See box
'Cell versus Batch'.
Dr. Clegg: "Bottlenecks are extremely common in cyclic processes but
it's only through modelling that you can predict where, when and why they
might appear. Also, modelling production processes helps to unify levels of
understanding within an organisation, as no two people will have exactly the
same views on where manufacturing bottlenecks will arise and how they need to
Dr. Clegg goes on to say that it is best to build the simulation models in
stages, validating each along the way. In Sheaf
Solutions's case it uses a commercially available product, Arena by Rockwell
Automation, to simulate its clients' applications at the system level initially.
Also, Dr. Clegg's team tends to place greater merit on the number-crunching
capabilities than, say, animation. He adds: "The simulation results tend to
be given in terms of raw numbers, set-up and cycle times, and machine/line efficiencies.
They seldom need to output results in financial terms as, at a fundamental level,
it goes without saying that efficiency leads to profitability."
The type of modelling performed for JRI was, according to Dr. Clegg, 'discrete'
in that the simulation models were of work flows involving the manual movement
of work pieces and the activities of factory workers. Discrete simulations have
also been performed for Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery Ltd in Lincoln, Dormer
Tools in Sheffield and the Swedish postal service.
Where manufacturing requires or already includes significant levels of automation,
and where process improvements must be made, then different skills sets are
It is well understood that the automation of processes and tasks enables manufacturers
to achieve higher levels of productivity, consistency and accuracy. Further,
automated machines have been employed in several sectors for many years now,
for example, pick-and-place machines for PCB manufacture and labelling machines
in the bottle and canning industries to name but two.
However where automation includes the use of robots, one still tends to think
'automotive'. Dr. Martin Howarth, Sheaf
Solutions's group leader for automation and operations engineering, comments:
"There's a perception that robots are difficult to use and that the end application
has to be the high-volume manufacture of high-value products to justify the
investment. That was perhaps true a few decades ago but robots are starting
to be used for lower volume manufacturing and in applications where there are
A research project investigated by Dr. Howarth's team for the power generating
industry, analysed how to integrate force and torque sensing with a robotic
manipulator used during the assembly of mechanical parts applicable to the industry's
equipment. Key to this project was 'training' robots to understand
the 'skills' required for robotic assembly.
Dr. Howarth continues: "We are doing much work in the field of artificial
neural networks, and embedding these into advanced control systems. Moreover,
this field of research will benefit manufacturing processes in virtually all
industries that currently use robots or plan to do so in the future. True, robots
are currently programmable, but by mimicking the way in which humans learn new
processes, switching between jobs in a manufacturing scenario should be greatly
As with planning to install or improve on manual manufacturing processes, simulation
is becoming increasingly popular to visualise automated processes. Moreover,
much research is being done (by Sheaf
Solutions and others) to investigate the integration of systems simulations
and the control software for the physical robots. Such integration will lead
to higher accuracy models and make good reuse of design efforts.
- Materials and Engineering Research Institute
For more information on this source please visit MERI
- Materials and Engineering Research Institute.