Sheaf Solutions Enabling Businesses to Increase Revenue and Improve Overall Cost Efficiency by MERI

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MERI (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 Mary's.

MERI's research and consultancy activities are supported by a large advanced equipment base ranging from the latest electron microscopes to high performance computing hardware.


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. Sheaf 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.

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Sheaf 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 be resolved."

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 called on.


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 hazardous materials."

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 simplified."

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.

Source: MERI - Materials and Engineering Research Institute

For more information on this source please visit MERI - Materials and Engineering Research Institute.

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