Past innovators can offer us a guide to shaping the future of industry

Ahead of the launch of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) Data Cloud, our Vice-Chancellor Koen Lamberts and WANdisco CEO David Richards discuss the future of industry in The Times.

Factory 2020

Named after legends of Greek mythology, the Atlas and Cyclops steel works of Sheffield were titans of the industrial age. They were the first commercial users of the Bessemer converter, an inexpensive breakthrough in steelmaking that facilitated mass production.

Bessemer changed the world with his egg-shaped containers through which molten iron was poured and reduced. Before them, steelmaking was painfully slow and laborious, with weekly output measured in the low pounds. Widespread adoption of the converter throughout Sheffield saw the city producing 10,000 tons of Bessemer steel every week. It was a genuine game-changer and it helped put the stamp “Made in Sheffield” on the world map. The city’s East End was the Silicon Valley of the 19th century, supplying steel for the expansion of the US railroads and helping to spread knowledge, progress and prosperity.

When the University of Sheffield was established in 1905, it pledged to build on this legacy. A flyer designed to collect penny donations from residents and local factory workers to establish a university for the city also set out its founding principles — among them, supporting local industries and helping the nation’s trade competition.

At the university and at WANdisco, we take inspiration from our illustrious history and the two Victorian industrialists, John Brown and Charles Cammell, founders of the Atlas and Cyclops steel works, who saw the revolutionary potential in Henry Bessemer’s invention of 1856 to dramatically increase their output. They put their capital at stake and reaped huge dividends.

We believe that today’s industrialists can seize a similar opportunity by harnessing the power of new technology. That is why we are launching the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) Data Cloud. This will make exceptional computing capabilities available to our factories at a fraction of the cost and accelerate the digital transformation of a hugely important sector. We want to give smaller UK manufacturers access to these world-leading artificial intelligence and machine learning tools and technologies to drive economic growth.

Manufacturers will be able to take advantage of data insights from their own factories to boost productivity, cut energy use, reduce waste and become even more competitive. We are already seeing examples of the approach in action.

Take aerospace and nuclear engineer CW Fletcher, which is working with the AMRC to expand its use of data from the shop floor to the top floor to identify areas for improvement such as looking at predicted production times. Or the construction engineer Eurovia UK, which, in partnership with Loop Technology, is harnessing innovative applications including artificial intelligence and robotics to pioneer the use of automated cutting systems for infrastructure projects, again with the help of the AMRC. These are just the beginning.

To provide the know-how necessary to make the most of these new tools and technologies, we are launching an intensive, 16-week training programme to equip manufacturers with data science skills. The Data Science Academy starts classes this January and is a partnership between the AMRC, the Yorkshire tech skills provider EyUp, and the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority. Employees will understand data science and the inner workings of manufacturing.

Industry leaders acknowledge that British manufacturing faces a productivity challenge. Brexit, the pandemic and the Ukraine war have put substantial pressure on supply chains. Faster adoption of automation and robotics could address some of these, but uptake has been slow. We hope the academy can be the catalyst for change.

The UK remains one of the largest manufacturing nations thanks to the foresight of our forebears. Imagine the knowledge, progress and prosperity we could create with our efforts today. Standing on the shoulders of giants in Sheffield, our ambitious industrialists can change the world again.

Professor Koen Lamberts - President & Vice-Chancellor

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