Acoustics industry is key to meeting UK’s Grand Challenges, researchers say

  • The acoustics industry must play a major role in the UK meeting the Grand Challenges outlined in its Industrial Strategy, researchers suggest
  • Acoustics industry already plays an essential role in modern society - underpinning many of the vital technologies we rely on in healthcare, defence and construction
  • UK’s leading academic experts are joining forces with industry under a new network to drive forward research and innovation in acoustics to support the Industrial Strategy
  • Network aims to put the UK at the forefront of the global industry and use acoustics to address the UK’s biggest challenges in clean growth, healthy ageing, mobility, AI and data

An illustration of a sound wave

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced £1.3 million funding for the EPSRC UK Acoustics Network Plus (UKAN+) which is a four-year grant led by the University of Sheffield and Imperial College London.

UKAN+ will build on the success of the UK Acoustics Network (UKAN) to coordinate high impact acoustics related research and knowledge exchange with industry.

Given how acoustics plays a crucial role in a vast range of technologies throughout society, the new network aims to enable the UK to remain at the forefront of the global industry.

UKAN+ brings together the UK’s leading academic acoustics experts from Loughborough University, Salford University, London Southbank University, Nottingham Trent University, University of Surrey, The University of Manchester, Bath University, Reading University, the University of Southampton and a broad range of non-academic partners.

This partnership enables UKAN+ to develop further research and innovation in acoustics in order to address the four Grand Challenges set by the government: Clean Growth, Healthy Ageing, Future of Mobility, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Data.

The acoustics industry, which is often hidden from sight, plays an essential role in modern society underpinning all vital technologies we rely on in healthcare, defence, construction and environment.

However, despite its importance, the industry is still poorly understood by people outside of the sector. Examples that have already emerged to demonstrate the central role of acoustics in addressing the four Grand Challenges in the UK government’s Industrial Strategy are:

  • Active voice-control and AI enables people of all ages to access technology, whether for convenience or for necessity, supporting everything from community care to entertainment.
  • Noise has a significant impact on mental health and individual wellbeing. Managing sound will be key to the design and construction of future cities, improving their health and productivity.
  • Ultrasonic non-destructive testing is used increasingly in productive digital manufacturing, helping to avoid compromises to quality and safety.
  • Sound and vibration management is an integral part of mobility, whether by air, land or sea. Enhancing the travel experience whilst minimising the impact on people, wildlife and the environment relies on passive and active acoustics.
  • Acoustics is essential to defence and security, providing new methods and tools which serve both to enable monitoring and detection whilst also facilitating remaining covert.

Professor Kirill V Horoshenkov, Professor of Acoustics at the University of Sheffield and Director of the EPSRC UK Acoustics Network+, said: “The initial task of UKAN+ is to develop a roadmap and action plan for acoustics to cover the four Grand Challenges set by the government through involving representatives from relevant non-academic sectors. UKAN+ will be based on the 15 Special Interest Groups which unite over 1000 members working in acoustics and cover a range of acoustics related topics.

“UKAN+ members will ensure that the new roadmap accurately reflects all of the relevant acoustics challenges and maps them appropriately on the four Grand Challenges to ensure acoustics related research and the UK’s industry benefits from this research and are internationally competitive.

“A key function of this roadmap is to plan how to add value to research funding and to influence policy through explorative/pilot research projects, collaboration and information exchange with a wider research community beyond acoustics. These pilot research projects will lead to full scale UKRI grants and facilitate knowledge transfer between industry and academia.”

Professor Horoshenkov added: “The roadmap will connect research active UKAN+ members to industry and society’s most pressing needs and allow them to demonstrate wider impact for their research. It will also connect industry and society to rapidly evolving research themes leading to new business opportunities and refinement of the roadmap.

“The most ambitious objective of UKAN+ is the development of a National Centre for the Coordination of Acoustics Research and sustaining UKAN+ for the long-term. This objective will be achieved in collaboration with the UK Institute of Acoustics, other key professional bodies and our non-academic partners who benefit from acoustics related research.”

Professor Richard Craster, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College London and Co-Director of the EPSRC UK Acoustics Network+, said: “Acoustics – the science of sound – impacts many aspects of our everyday lives, from using sound to monitor our health to reducing sound to make transport and cities more comfortable. The UK has unrivalled expertise and experience in many of these areas, and this investment in acoustics research and applications will support the future growth of this area.

“Our vibrant network of both academic and industrial partners will turn insights into innovations, supporting the UK’s goals for growth. This will help create a society that supports health ageing, mobility, clean growth and which makes use of big data and artificial intelligence.”

According to a report published in 2019, The UK acoustics industry contributes £4.6 billion to the UK economy annually, employing over 16,000 people, each generating over £65,000 in value, in at least 750 companies nationwide.

Acoustics is a global industry in which the UK plays a significant role. Market forecasts highlight where acoustics contributes to a significant global end-product market. For example; the global market for acoustics materials, which includes products such as sound insulation used in new-build construction and the automotive industry, is estimated at $10 billion (2016) and is projected to grow to $16 billion by 2025. The UK is a major player with manufacturers producing traditional sound absorbing materials, such as Saint-Gobain Ecophon, and innovation, through research, has led to next-generation soundproofing metamaterials with smaller companies such as Sonobex emerging.

Other markets such as that of ultrasonic equipment is reported to be worth $7.6 billion (2017), growing at an annual rate of 7.6 per cent. This particular market space is dominated by medical diagnostics products, such as hospital ultrasound equipment, and technologies for non-destructive testing.

There are also emerging markets that are evolving rapidly. UK acoustics feeds into the potential $31 billion market for voice recognition and control for the Internet of Things.

All major UK industries leverage acoustics expertise with its high indirect environmental and societal value.

At present, the acoustics industry is underpinned by a vibrant knowledge base with almost 160 active research grants, worth in total in excess of £160 million and involving over 50 separate UK universities.

The value of research grants in acoustics has grown by 49 per cent since 2016 - demonstrating the strong acoustics research capacity in the UK that the new network is encouraging to be maintained and developed. This value of research reflects the importance of innovations in acoustics to the health of other areas of science and engineering.

The new grant is the response to a clear need for the community to get access to funding for running high-risk/high-gain pilot studies related to acoustics. UKAN+ will coordinate this activity to enable the UK to stay internationally leading and to rapidly address emerging technologies requiring acoustics.

For more information on the EPSRC UK Acoustics Network+, visit www.acoustics.ac.uk or write to Prof. Kirill V. Horoshenkov at k.horoshenkov@sheffield.ac.uk

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