AMRC — the first fifteen years — Rab Scott 9th July 2018

Our speaker this week, Professor Rab Scott of Sheffield University, is the Head of Digital and vir­tual real­ity at AMRC, loc­ated at Orgreave on the Rotherham/Sheffield bound­ary. Not so long ago this was the loc­a­tion of a major indus­trial dis­pute which looked to the coal-dependent past but now looks to the future and the begin­nings of a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.

 Rab was to revive memor­ies of a fas­cin­at­ing visit made to the Centre by sev­eral mem­bers about three years ago.   A geo­lo­gist by early aca­demic back­ground at Glasgow and Sheffield Universities, his career has taken him all the way from study­ing the earth’s raw mater­i­als to lead­ing research –appro­pri­ately in Sheffield -at the cut­ting edge of present and future indus­trial devel­op­ments which seek to max­im­ise the poten­tial of mater­i­als and man­power.

Rab began his present­a­tion with a brief resume of the indus­trial envir­on­ment and the deep routed weak­nesses in the British eco­nomy which AMRC and other centres of excel­lence are seek­ing to over­come. Although we could do with more James Dysons, British invent­ive­ness and research was alive and well.  Persisting prob­lems, included a lack of com­pet­ive­ness and grow­ing trade defi­cit in man­u­fac­tured goods, low pro­ductiv­ity in per­son­nel and plant.  He thought other factors were inad­equate public infra­struc­ture, the gap between aca­demia and wealth cre­at­ing industry, ignor­ance and lack of interest in the work­ing world and ‘hands on’ occu­pa­tions by too many par­ents and teach­ers. While we need to encour­age more girls to con­sider a career in engin­eer­ing there have been a number of pos­it­ive ongo­ing responses such as the STEM ini­ti­at­ives in schools and a recent improve­ment in Treasury and local author­ity atti­tudes.

Our story began in 2001 when a small local com­pany was trying to sell Sheffield made cut­ting tools to Boeing who at the time were seek­ing to get out of the direct man­u­fac­tur­ing of com­pon­ents and move to a ‘just-in-time’ supply chain.  Having been shown the door sev­eral times the per­sist­ent owner finally per­suaded his cus­tomer to trial his cut­ting tool. Boeing finally agreed and were so impressed that they offered to go into a research part­ner­ship and in due course accep­ted the basis that other part­ners ( includ­ing rival man­u­fac­tur­ers) should be involved and make a fin­an­cial con­tri­bu­tion. Other, smal­ler firms, were also encour­aged to join. At this point Sheffield University came on board, and, armed with the spe­cified risk fin­ance what became AMAC was able to draw Government ‘match fund­ing’.

Such enter­prises as joint industry-academic centres of excel­lence in peace­time take, like seeds, a little time to grow and mature. The first build­ing, on the site of the Orgreave coking plant, was opened in 2004.  We were shown pic­tures of the deliv­ery of new machinery which was man­oeuvred through the entrance with a margin of 10cms -a good omen for an organ­isa­tion ded­ic­ated to pre­ci­sion and accur­acy!

AMRC was now to enter a period of encour­aging growth and over the next ten years or so was to add over 100 par­ti­cipants to its port­fo­lio. It was to gain a Queen’s Award in 2010.   More photos were shown of the devel­op­ing site , includ­ing the now redund­ant wind tur­bine which had design prob­lems of its own!  The Centre began to fea­ture on the vis­it­ing list of the great and good includ­ing Royalty (more pic­tures). Prince Andrew has taken par­tic­u­lar interest, open­ing ‘the fact­ory of the future’ in 2006.  Research facil­it­ies or high value or ‘ Catapults’ were to mul­tiply over the years from the ori­ginal ‘cut­ting’ tech­no­logy to cover such fields as cast­ings, com­pos­ites (such as graph­ine), digital elec­tron­ics, robot­ics ( includ­ing arti­fi­cial limbs and hands), cobots,  nuc­lear, and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence all housed in their own spe­cial­ist facil­it­ies.  These have now spread to the other side of the Parkway onto the Airport site.  

 Rab  out­lined sev­eral examples of the research being under­taken. In the air­craft industry, weight equates to fuel costs (one kilo­gram equals US $ I mil­lion over the life of an air­craft)  res­ult­ing in much effort to reduce the weight of everything from seats, engine cast­ings and land­ing gear  while improv­ing strength and reli­ab­il­ity.  Here there are cros­sov­ers with auto­mot­ive and it is thought that Maclaren’s decision to open a car pro­duc­tion nearby was much influ­enced by the Centre’s impact (they are moving pro­duc­tion of com­pos­ite panels from Austria to Sheffield).  Major firms involved in col­lab­or­at­ive pro­jects have grown from the ori­ginal Boeing (who now sup­port 20,000 engin­eers in the UK) to include BAE, Rolls Royce, Renishaw, Seimens and Toyota.  (see logo col­lage at top).  Some of these firms are involved in high secur­ity defence research and are not open to vis­it­ors.

In con­clu­sion our speaker  shared his vision for the future, telling us about AMRC’s latest devel­op­ment, ‘Factory 2050’ . This devel­op­ment will look over cur­rent hori­zons to anti­cip­ate the impact of cur­rent and anti­cip­ated tech­nical devel­op­ments and trends into the longer term.  It will lead research into the impact of a switch from a man­u­fac­tur­ing to a ser­viced based eco­nomy in the sense that most goods will become ser­vices. Supply will move on from ‘just in time’ to anti­cip­a­tion of require­ments. It will become data driven world.  He gave the example of Xerox copy­ing machines, linked to their pro­duc­tion facil­ity, that will auto­mat­ic­ally result in supply of con­sum­able powders etc based on paper usage.  Appropriately for hot weather, brew­er­ies will be able to fine tune the pro­duc­tion of lager instead of build­ing up unsale­able sup­plies. It will be a world, he pre­dicted, where con­trol sys­tems and soft­ware engin­eers at long last received the same sort of status as Doctors and Lawyers.  This was begin­ning to be reflec­ted in the improved salar­ies they received.

Professor Scott’s present­a­tion was warmly received by mem­bers, reflec­ted in the many ques­tions asked which ranged from the impact of Brexit to the out­look for industry in our city.  His responses were encour­agingly optim­istic and pos­it­ive.  We were left with the feel­ing that while the future might not be orange it could be bright for Sheffield.