6 December 2017
Researchers at Lancaster University are to work on a new £1.5m project to create a system in which products can ‘talk’ to the factory floor to transform the modern manufacturing process.

Imagine a bike helmet that could send a text message to your phone to tell you that a crack had developed underneath the surface of the helmet.

Simultaneously, imagine this information being instantly pinged back to the manufacturers of the bike helmet so they could almost immediately adjust their processes and improve the next batch of bike helmets on the production line.

The three-year project aims to take advantage of the rapid growth of the ‘Internet of Things’, in which everyday items have the ability to ‘talk’ to each other and transmit massive amounts of useable data.

By embedding sensors into everyday products, the goal is to create one seamless process that is capable of continuously changing products based on data from the users.

The project, dubbed ‘Chatty Factories’, could potentially save significant amounts of time and money spent on consumer research, concept design, prototyping and manual labour on the factory floor, as well as providing ideas for brand new products.

The idea of people, products and production processes being intrinsically connected is the project vision, which is being led by Cardiff University.

Dr Dan Richards, based at Lancaster University’s ‘Imagination Lancaster’ and a member of Lancaster University Data Science Institute, will lead the data-driven design research at Lancaster University.

“A major challenge for our vision of ‘chatty factories’ relates to how designers will be able to make sense of huge amounts of information from product sensors, how they will leverage the insights to generate sophisticated 3D designs, and how they will seamlessly communicate digital designs to the factory floor for robot-assisted fabrication," says Dr Richards.

“Over the next three-years our goal at Lancaster University is to imagine, develop and test entirely new types of ‘data-driven design software’ and ‘human-data interfaces’ to make this possible.”

The idea of using real-time data from sensors has been rolled out extensively in the aircraft industry, specifically for monitoring the performance of jet engines. However, the data is used to tweak the optimisation of an existing product, rather than generate new ones.

Over the next three years the project team will develop artificial intelligence to process the large amounts of data, exploring ways in which sensors can be embedded into products, developing robots to re-skill the factory floors and making sure all of the interconnected products and processes are able to understand one another.

Each strand of research will be underpinned by the latest advances in cybersecurity, ensuring the creation of safe, secure and robust processes.

The project has been funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and also involves the University of Edinburgh, University of Nottingham and Bath Spa University.