Researching the finer points of success for manufacturing

07 May 2022 | BUSINESS POST

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland and based at the University of Limerick, the CONFIRM research centre carries out research into digital manufacturing to produce ideas that can be applied to manufacturing industry

Ireland has an excellent reputation as a centre of advanced manufacturing and, thanks to a strong collaboration between academia and industry, the sector evolves and develops continually to meet the ever-changing needs and pressures of the global market.

The world-leading Smart Manufacturing Research Centre, CONFIRM, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, which is based at the University of Limerick, is at the forefront of research and development in the advanced manufacturing space and centre director, Professor Conor McCarthy says its involvement is crucial.

“Working with over 20 different companies, we carry out fundamental and applied research into digital manufacturing which enables our team of over 200 researchers to come up with ideas which we transition to applications in industry,” he said.

“We are a not-for-profit outfit research centre, and our work is vital as we play a major role in what is happening with ‘Industry 4.0’ or digital manufacturing. We have already seen a revolution in areas such as communication, transport, and accommodation where digital platforms are enabling change and the agility of how we do things.

Professor Conor McCarthy, director of the Smart Manufacturing Research Centre CONFIRM

“But manufacturing is less straightforward, because along with IT, we also have to look at OT so we could be dealing with a production line in excess of €100 million. It’s not just a case of getting on with the next generation of technology, as there is a lot more to think about such as retrofitting, adding sensor capacity, or figuring out how to extract data. So, there is a lag here which makes advancement a little more difficult and this is where research like ours can facilitate development.”

Research centres such as CONFIRM play a vital role in the transition to a more digital based manufacturing sector, facilitating communications between systems and integrating supply chain information so “push/pull behaviour” can identify demand for products. It also enables better communication and decision making within factories and companies with state-of-the-art digital technologies – and by feeding information to manufacturing plants, helps to optimise the process which leads to a competitive gain for industry.

“There are many different types of data involved and that is where deep physics comes in,” said Professor McCarthy. “This is where academia and research are important because we, at CONFIRM, would have the skillset, techniques and tools to understand the processes in a very specific way – so the added value of the academic community is so important.

“So, while research centres don’t build systems for companies, they do build an understanding of the process and that is the difference between researchers and SMEs – our job is to turn data into useful information for manufacturing.”

Machinery and technology may be at the heart of manufacturing, but without talented people, the sector would not be enjoying its current and ongoing success.

“People are key to this revolution and one key advantage of a national centre like CONFIRM is that we can draw on expertise from different institutions to help solve problems,” McCarthy said.

“Academics and researchers are all specialists in various different things, so we have the ability to pull leading talent from various institutions across the country and deploy them on specific tasks and that is a real advantage of having a research centre and why they are such important vehicles. No one institution, company or country has all the expertise to fill the requirements for this digital revolution – it is a continued collaboration right across the world and we at CONFIRM are part of that.

“Also, we are fortunate, as being in the university sector we have the ability to attract international talent because academics and researchers move countries to different universities – it’s just something that we do, it’s part of our ethos. So we can attract the top talent from all around the world as our programmes are very well-funded and also very prestigious, so we can attract high calibre talent.

“And we also have a growing gender balance. One of our goals is to continue to grow the number of females involved in the centre. When we began in 2017, only 2 per cent of the team was female, now that figure is up to 22 per cent, but we won’t be happy until there is a 50-50 balance. It is a mission for us, as there is a lot of untapped talent out there and we want to get to a point where the gender balance is equal as standard.”

The future is certainly bright for the academic arm of the advanced manufacturing sector, and McCarthy says sustainability and resilience are crucial aspects to continued success.

“We need to be resilient in order to ensure industry stays in Ireland,” he said. “Firstly, that involves economic resilience which is about continuing to be competitive, ensuring efficient productivity and ongoing sustainability.

“But we also need to look at societal resilience which involves the future of the workforce and make sure that people want to continue to work in this sector as the future of work is going to be different, so it is important to know what this looks like in a manufacturing environment.

“Environmental resilience is also vital, and people are becoming increasingly aware of this – so it is important to keep thinking about the products we make and how they fit in a circular economy – to look at production systems and make them more efficient and how products and machinery can be more holistic. Our goal is to keep looking at projects as a whole and see a product from production to the end of its use so it can be recycled and used again.

“Ireland is looking towards becoming fully digitalised, fully circular, and fully carbon neutral – the green agenda and the digital agenda are beginning to converge, and Ireland needs to get on board so we can compete globally. We at CONFIRM, are involved in helping to achieve this – so focusing on the future is more important than ever.”

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