Sheffield to partner in pioneering research hubs for sustainable manufacturing

Sheffield is partnering in four new EPSRC manufacturing hubs, aiming to address the challenges of commercialising early-stage research within key areas of manufacturing, such as semiconductors and medicines.

Robotics in manufacturing
Credit: Simon Kadula/Unsplash

The hubs are among five supported by the UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) ‘Manufacturing Research Hubs for a Sustainable Future’ programme, with each receiving £11M. Partner contributions, cash and in-kind, bring the total support committed to the new hubs to more than £99 million. 

Working with industry partners, the researchers will also explore different products’ pathways to manufacture, including production scale-up and integration within the wider industrial system. Another key goal of the new hubs is to improve environmental sustainability in manufacturing processes. 

The EPSRC Manufacturing Research Hub in Robotics, Automation & Smart Machine Enabled Sustainable Circular Manufacturing & Materials (RESCu-M2), is to be established by the University of Birmingham. The hub will focus on two grand challenges: transforming the sustainable use of critical materials, and improving the productivity of ‘Re-X’ manufacturing processes. It aims to harness advances in AI and intelligent automation to create a new manufacturing ecosystem that can promote cost-effective circular resource use.

So-called Re-X processes include reuse, repurpose, repair, remanufacture and recycle. These processes are currently much more labour-intensive than traditional manufacturing, resulting in many materials being disposed of via landfill or incineration. However businesses could save up to £23bn per year by making low- or no- cost improvements.

Partners include the Universities of Strathclyde, Leeds, Sheffield and Brighton, as well as Loughborough University, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, West Midlands Combined Authority, West Yorkshire Combined Authority, Brighton & Hove Chamber of Commerce and Atom Valley with Rochdale Development Agency. These partners will support the development of ‘spokes’ from the hub, around which opportunities for further investment can emerge.

Our research at the University of Sheffield will contribute to the Hub Grand Challenge of radically improving productivity of Re-X manufacturing processes on par with or exceeding traditional forward manufacturing processes. Re-X includes re-use, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling. We will lead the Hub research activities in cyber-physical inspection, sensing and analysis for real-time assessments throughout a product's lifecycle and at its end-of-life stage to predict remaining useful life and ensure optimal Re-X routing. We will develop a unified Digital Passport framework to capture and process product lifecycle data providing insights into a product's history and a novel Re-X virtual environment for linking the Digital Passport with real-time sensor data. Our research at Sheffield will be grounded and validated by industry flagships, such as large engineering structures, where Re-X processes are needed to meet sustainability and productivity goals.

We are really excited to be part of this Hub. The transformative manufacturing ecosystem, as envisioned by the Hub, will enable circular utilisation of high-value products through leveraging groundbreaking advancements in digital manufacturing, AI and smart machines. We at the University of Sheffield look forward to developing new digital manufacturing techniques, in collaboration with our industry partners, to tackle the productivity challenges associated with key Re-X processes.”

Professor Ashutosh Tiwari FREng

Deputy Vice-President for Innovation at The University of Sheffield and Airbus/RAEng Chair in Digital Manufacturing in ACSE, leading the hub work at Sheffield

Sheffield engineers are also a partner in the EPSRC MediForge Hub, led by CMAC – a world-leading medicines manufacturing research centre – which aims to transform the development and manufacture of medicines through pioneering an Industry 5.0 manufacturing system for sustainable, resilient, and human-centric medicine production.

Professor Rachel Smith (Sheffield lead) and Professor Jim Litster from Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Sheffield, will join the hub, led by the University of Strathclyde in collaboration with partners at University of Leeds, Imperial College London, and Glasgow School of Art.

We are delighted to bring our expertise in particulate processing and computational modelling for pharmaceutical manufacturing to the exciting new Mediforge Research Hub, and are looking forward to working with our partners to drive digital transformation of medicines manufacturing."

Professor Rachel Smith

Professor of Particulate Manufacturing in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

The programme brings together an array of advanced manufacturing and digital technologies to create a unique cyberphysical research infrastructure to drive the digital transformation of Chemistry, Manufacture and Control (CMC) approaches. 

CMC is a key element in ensuring medicines are safe and of consistent high quality but traditional approaches can be inefficient and costly. By developing digital solutions to transform CMC MediForge will assist in tackling contemporary challenges faced by the pharmaceutical manufacturers. By accelerating the development of new, sustainable products and processes the sector will be better able to respond to the needs of patients by producing medicines faster while addressing rising healthcare costs, medicines shortages from fragile global supply chains, and the impacts of the climate crisis.

The third Hub that Sheffield is involved in is the Future Advanced Metrology Hub for Sustainable Manufacturing, led by the University of Huddersfield. 

This new Hub brings together a consortium of world-leading experts in metrology to address the significant challenges the manufacturing sector faces in meeting net zero goals. Ben Morgan from the University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) will lead an innovation spoke to support the project.

The fourth Hub Sheffield is partnering in is the CSManuHubSust, led by Cardiff University. Professor Lenny Koh, Cross Cutting Chief, Strategic Futures on Resource Sustainability, based in the Management School, is the Sheffield lead. 

The hub aims to capitalise on the huge opportunity of compound semiconductor manufacturing. The researchers will develop energy-efficient opto-electronics for use in key emerging technologies such as quantum. They will expand on the environmental benefits of compound semiconductors by creating new devices such as mercury-free ‘night vision’ mid-infrared detector arrays and devices that both communicate and illuminate based on integrated transistors and LEDs.

Announcing the funding, EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Charlotte Deane said: “Given the scale and importance of the UK’s manufacturing sector we must ensure that it is able to benefit fully from advances made across the research and innovation ecosystem.

“With their focus on innovation and sustainability the advances made by the hubs will benefit specific sectors, the wider manufacturing sector and economy, as well the environment” 

Science Minister, Andrew Griffith said: “Manufacturing accounts for almost a tenth of the UK’s economic output, but for the sector to keep growing and sustaining jobs nationwide, it has to tackle challenges ranging from reducing emissions, to cutting production costs.

“These new hubs will support UK researchers with the cutting-edge facilities they need, to help our manufacturers seize the benefits of technologies such as robotics and AI. Harnessing these innovations will cement the UK's position as a global leader in sustainable manufacturing."

Centres of excellence

The University's cross-faculty research centres harness our interdisciplinary expertise to solve the world's most pressing challenges.