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Materials innovation in the new digital age

Materials innovation is at the heart of development, conferring such a huge impact that it has defined key eras in the evolution of humans. From stone, to bronze, to iron ages, the steel of the industrial revolution or the birth of silicon, materials provide the opportunity to forever change the way we live. The dawning of the next digital age now represents a new prospect for a revolution in materials science.

Digitalisation is increasingly seen as critical to improving productivity, and is rapidly being adopted by the manufacturing sector, leading to what is now commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution (I4.0). Advanced digital technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, high performance computing, the Internet of Things, big data analytics or virtual & augmented reality are enabling companies to increase efficiency, reduce costs and become more agile within the marketplace.

The Made Smarter Review 2017 estimated that productivity in the UK manufacturing sector could be increased by more than 25% by 2025 with the adoption of industrial digital technologies; and the North West itself has been pinpointed as a key region for implementation through the launch of the North West Made Smarter pilot. But why should this stop at manufacturing?

Within the North West corridor of Liverpool, Cheshire & Greater Manchester the materials chemistry sector currently contributes around £17B p.a. GVA to the UK economy. Over ~26,000 people are employed in the sector, with large corporates such as Unilever & NSG based in the region, as well as ~1900 SMEs.

Combined with this, the digital tools & technologies available to businesses is vast; high performance computing, AI and big data analytics at the STFC Hartree Centre; digital transformation at the University of Liverpool’s Virtual Engineering Centre, and simulation and robotics at the Materials Innovation Factory to name just a few.

This critical mass of excellence in materials chemistry and digital technologies within the North West corridor, combined with such a strong industrial base, is not currently replicated elsewhere in the UK or indeed globally, representing a huge economic opportunity for the region.

Fortunately, teams across these major centres are working closely with businesses to connect these strengths in materials and digitalisation. The Henry Royce Institute, with its hub at the University of Manchester, is helping businesses to tackle materials challenges across the research supply chain, from quantum scale engineering and development of 2D materials such as graphene, to materials for energy storage and chemical materials design.

As one of the nine partners in the Henry Royce Institute, the University of Liverpool’s Materials Innovation Factory is specialising in utilising robotics and high performance computing for materials discovery. Ongoing work on the development of a mobile robot chemist has shown the clear potential for automation to accelerate the testing of thousands of material candidates. The robot chemist can investigate 1000 formulations in just one week – more than a student could usually study in an entire 4-year PhD. The team is currently using the robot chemist to examine potential catalysts for extracting hydrogen from water.

Materials chemistry businesses are also accelerating industrial research and development by bringing the entire design process to the virtual world. At the STFC Hartree Centre, a recent spin-out, Formeric, has created a software solution for accessible computer aided formulation. Bringing together simulation, modelling and data analytics tools to inform product development and design for faster, cheaper and enhanced formulation. Innovations like these are changing approaches to creating fast-moving consumer goods and de-risking it in the process.

Whether it’s a virtual testing bed for experimental simulation, automated analysis of candidate material compositions, secure data storage or robot chemists, advanced digital technologies are widening the boundaries of possibility for materials innovation. The North West is at the forefront of the revolution – how could your business benefit?

STFC Hartree Centre and the University of Liverpool’s Virtual Engineering Centre are based at Sci-Tech Daresbury – get in touch to find out more about how you could benefit from the expertise available.