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.