Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering

Research

Intelligent Automation Research Group

Intelligent automation provides supervisory functionality as well as production functionality. Intelligent automation systems deploy sensors to measure the input and output of a process as well as intermediate parts of the process.

In this way, coupled with computer analysis of data sets, corresponding actions are created so that the defective parts/assembly errors are eliminated from the manufacturing process.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre has a vision to:

  • fully understand human skill in advanced manufacturing and use this information to provide human-automation and intelligent automation solutions 
  • produce exemplars of research solutions to proof of concept demonstrator stage 
  • broaden the take up of automation throughout UK industry, especially within SMEs 
  • maintain high levels of quality whilst increasing production volume at reduced costs 
  • take a national role, connecting expertise with need in this growing specialist area 
  • inspire young people to consider future careers in highly skilled manufacturing roles 
  • promote the further development of intelligent automation for UK industry 

The EPSRC Centre is part of a unique pipeline from discovery through to industrial deployment. Work initiated within an academic environment can be developed through an established innovation pathway (the Manufacturing Technology Centre and Cranfield University Partners) to reach major industrial companies with the funding and commitment to exploit the results. This continuous pipeline is central to the success and value of the Centre and unique within the UK and Europe.

The EPSRC Centre has been provided with 400 square metres of dedicated lab space at Loughborough University along with access to state of the art research facilities at Cranfield University. Academics and researchers work collaboratively across the two sites and out with industrial partners, sharing their complementary expertise to develop truly multidisciplinary research. Resources include several large industrial robot arms, machine vision and motion sensing equipment to a value of £0.5 million.

Visit the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Intelligent Automation website for more information.  

Systems for 3D Weld/Sealant Tracking and Inspection

In high value manufacturing environments, valuable parts are assembled using a number of manual techniques such as welding. The purpose of this project is to develop an integrated system which includes real time seam-tracking for closed loop feedback to the robot controlled welding process. This will include the 3-D sensing of the gap, which must be welded between two complex shaped components. The research will include investigation of sensing and welding strategies, 3-D edge tracking to follow the seam to be welded in real-time, Process monitoring and optimisation of the weld process and assessment of the weld upon completion. A preferred solution will be designed, selected and developed, before a prototype is constructed for lab-based testing. Following this testing, further iterations of the solution will be developed based upon the analysis and evaluation of the results. In parallel, the solution will be simulated using a 3-D modelling environment.

Rapid Tool-less Complex Form Panel Production

Panel production is a dominantly an automated manufacturing process that requires significant investment on equipment and tools. However, the process of panel beating is a manual operation in which a craftsman forms a panel by repetitive beating using a number of different tools and hammers. This process is widely used for repairing, maintaining and very low volume productions.

This research is focused on automating the manual panel beating. The research will look into various aspects of this production process including, capturing human skill, mechanics of the material flow, incremental forming of material, incremental movement of the panel, in-process measurement of the panels, flexible tooling, and robotic automation of the process.

Following an initial investigation, this research will focus on one of the aspects of the panel production and collaborate with other PhD programs to fulfil the complete research scenario.

Automated Free Form Fastener Assembly

Handling and fastening of parts and components are the basic activities in any assembly processes. Much has been done in automated assemblies in particular in automotive industries. However, the current practices are mainly based on a pre-existing knowledge of location and orientation of parts before handling. Such systems will require relatively high volume of production to justify the investment in dedicated tooling and fixturing systems, and therefor are limited to certain industries such as automobile manufacturing.

In other industries, such as aerospace, the low volume production typically dictates manual assembly of standard parts or parts with complicated geometries.

This research will focus on developing a generic approach applicable to a family of parts, to automatically identify, handle, locate and fasten parts in an assembly operation.

Variability Study

A means of competent and reliable analysis of the tasks and skill level a human operator applies in manual processing is required in order that the automation can incorporate the correct capability for control of the production process. To correctly specify the automation requirements the human skill must be translated from the analysis into specific requirements for command and control of the automated solution. Specific tasks/skills can vary from the positioning of a component for assembly, through the control of a component for surface finishing to the control of a welding torch during fabricated assembly.

This research will characterise process variability and develop an understanding of how human operators contribute to and accommodate variability. Based on these findings, a methodology for incorporating this understanding into the design and specification of improved automation solutions will be produced.

Non-Contact Optical Inspection of Drilled Holes

Application of high precision measurement systems has critical position in manufacturing and quality control engineering. However, the is often selective and is carried out within the metrology environment. The current industrial market demands a portable metrology system that not only can be delivered to the components within the production or assembly workshops, but can be used in near real-time.

This research will focus on investigating high accuracy metrology systems for measuring size, shape and surface quality of drilled holes.

The main thrust of this research is in understanding the capability of precision metrology equipment within the production environment with respect to means of automating the measurements in terms of hardware and data processing together with the environmental factors that naturally impose errors in the measurements process. A prototype robotic cell will be created to allow evaluation of precision measurement systems mounted at the robot end effector interface.

Business Case for Automation

Increasing automation in the UK industry has been identified as a crucial step towards establishing competitiveness in the global manufacturing industry. Dissatisfaction with the outcome of outsourcing policies and the high cost of the labour in the Europe has created an urgency to improve the automation capability. However, the lack of awareness about the impact of implementing automation systems in various sized industrial enterprises, especially in SMEs, is one of the main barriers to adopting wider automation systems.

This research will focus on four different sized industrial enterprises with the aim to:

  • develop an architecture for assessing suitable automation level for an enterprise;
  • develop a method to benchmark industrial automation;
  • create a method to optimise automation level for maximising positive business impacts; and
  • develop a decision making tool to enable automation scenarios to be analysed.