Scientists at the University of Huddersfield have been awarded millions of pounds for a five-year research project that will accelerate a new industrial revolution by developing techniques for ultra-accurate measurement on a nanoscale.
An ensemble of miniaturised sensors will enable automated production lines to detect and correct errors in situ, without parts having to be removed for separate measurement. This will deliver much greater efficiency and cost savings plus the ability to manufacture short runs of bespoke items on demand, with unprecedented accuracy.
Industry 4.0 is the term used to describe this next phase of industrial development, based on automation enabled by smart technology. Helping to achieve this is the University of Huddersfield's Centre for Precision Technology (CPT), world leaders in metrology - the science of measurement.
It has teamed up with Professor Nikolay Zheludev FRS's Nanophotonics and Metamaterials Group in the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics at the University of Southampton. The two research groups will share more than £5million in funding for a new programme, titled Next Generation Metrology Driven by Nanophotonics, which will be led by CPT member Professor Dame Xiangqian (Jane) Jiang.
The project is funded by a Programme Grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). These highly prestigious awards are "intended to support world leading researchers, bringing together 'best with best' teams to undertake a variety of activities focusing on one strategic research theme". This is the first time that a Programme Grant has been awarded to the University of Huddersfield.
One of the CPT team at Huddersfield involved in the new project is Dr Haydn Martin, who explained that there is a limit to the extent that conventional optics, such as glass lenses, can be miniaturised and embedded in the sensors necessary for Industry 4.0 to achieve its potential.
But nanophotonics, the study of light on the nanoscale, allows the production of tiny, flat lenses from novel meta-materials. These lenses are potentially just tens of microns in thickness.
"Traditional factories are very good at making lots of similar things, but the Industry 4.0 concept is all about automation and autonomous manufacturing, so that it is possible to send in a design and the manufacturing platform can then configure itself, with Artificial Intelligence supporting all the activity in the background," said Dr Martin.
"In order to do this, you need a much greater incorporation of metrology, because you are asking the tooling to do many different things rather than the same thing over and over again."
The EPSRC grant shared by the CPT at Huddersfield and the Zepler Institute at Southampton was earned after a lengthy process of submission and appraisal.
It was towards the end of 2017 that the CPT's Professor Jiang, alongside Dr Martin and Dr Andrew Henning began to contemplate solutions to the problem of sensor miniaturisation. They focused on the wealth of recent advances in nanophotonics, plasmonics and optical metamaterials, promising hugely transformative potential for sensor development in optical metrology.
They were joined by Professor Paul Scott, who will develop new the mathematics and machine-learning techniques required.
Now, the EPSRC grant will enable the opening up of a new field in nanophotonics for metrology, said Dr Martin.
"We aim to transition nanophotonic devices from where they are now in the physics labs at Southampton all the way through to demonstrations of new ultra-miniaturised, ultra-compact sensors in real-world situations."