Loughborough University has a long history of Mechatronics and Intelligent Automation research and innovation which has enabled leading edge ‘world first’ manufacturing machinery and processes, extending back to the late 1980s. The Mechatronics Research Centre was formed in 2000, building on research carried out by the Textile Engineering Group. This pedigree established the Mechatronics team as the Academic Lead for the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) Intelligent Automation theme formed in 2010. The EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Intelligent Automation was formed in 2011, building on the strong integrated solution approach established by the Loughborough team led by Professor Mike Jackson. Central to this work was to understand how difficult manufacturing tasks posed challenges that had hitherto been unmet and to apply a blend of human cooperative automation where appropriate. In 2017, the Intelligent Automation Centre (IAC) has been formed when the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Intelligent Automation concluded in March 2017.
The TRL 1-3 work carried out during the 2011-17 period set the benchmark for industry driven research activity, with progression from TRL 3 to TRL 6 via the HVM Catapult, specifically via the Manufacturing Technology Centre. The EPSRC Centre budget comprised of £5.8m EPSRC income, £2m University support and £1m industrial support from companies such as Rolls-Royce and Airbus.
The EPSRC Centre had 10 RAs and 30 PhD students supervised by 6 academic staff, including the Centre Director, who, at that time, was Professor Mike Jackson. At its peak there were 50 TRL 1-3 projects completed, including automated visual inspection, intelligent metrology, automated adaptive TIG Welding, agile automated flexible and adaptive panel forming, and automated and adaptive threaded fastener assembly (see annual reports below). The major goal for all projects was to provide automation that could work adaptively on manufacturing tasks that currently require skilled workers to achieve high quality output, often in difficult, dangerous and dirty conditions, especially where repetitive and adaptive activity was required. All of these projects require automation with a level of adaptivity to accommodate variation of component position, form, stiffness and surface finish. Most of these demonstrators were based on a control code with a core ‘objective’ that the process should adapt its behaviour in response to sensors that provide information on the robot interaction with the immediate environment and the product within the context of the manufacturing process being executed. These research projects demonstrated how these goals can be reached, in part, also highlighting the significant gaps that needed to be addressed to fully achieve these goals. Early stage TRL 1 PhD students carried out ground breaking world class research exemplified by the excellent results in electro-adhesion technology and intelligent soft robotics. The Centre extended its capability by recruiting two Associate Directors as Senior Lecturers during 2014: Dr Niels Lohse with a strong Manufacturing Automation and Informatics background and Dr Peter Kinnell who brought metrology and sensor capability focused on Intelligent Metrology.
This work continues and is being extended in the newly formed Intelligent Automation Centre, which is led by the new Director, Dr Niels Lohse, and colleagues at Loughborough University. All academic staff from the original EPSRC Centre are involved in the new Intelligent Automation Centre.