How the National Robotarium will pioneer smart factory technology that could give Scotland’s economy a competitive edge

Manufacturing is embedded within the Scottish psyche with its roots in the national consciousness nurtured by centuries of innovation which has created everyday objects, such as the ATM, telephone and the pedal bicycle, that are still used by millions of people around the globe, writes Stephen Emerson.

The National Robotarium is being built on Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus

The world however has moved on and for Scotland to compete with global competitors with a lower cost base, it has to think differently and that, according to Dr Richard Carter, who is the ultra lab lead at the National Robotarium, is where smart factories come in. If the country can own and push forward the technology behind them, our economy can gain a competitive edge.

Photonic technologies, which include lasers, are key to smart factories and are a core component of the new £22.4 million National Robotarium, a world-leading robotics and artificial intelligence research facility under construction at Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh campus. It is set to open in spring 2022.

The building will span 40,000 square feet and house three distinct research and development areas, providing bespoke facilities for robotics and autonomous systems, human and robotics interaction and high-precision manufacturing.

Dr Richard Carter, who is the ultra lab lead at the National Robotarium

SMART FACTORIES

Dr Carter, who is also an assistant professor in Applied Optics and Photonics at Heriot-Watt University, said: "Heavy manufacturing on a large scale has left the UK and, because we are not going to be able to compete with countries with lower labour costs, we need to consider what the needs of industry are and how we can fulfil them.

"We can, however, compete in high-value manufacturing which is skills-driven and requires specific knowledge of what you are doing and why you are doing it.

"If you consider a traditional machine shop, you have machines that are well designed to do a specific job that cost a small fortune to buy.

"A laser gives you the flexibility to use one machine only, change what you are doing on the fly and respond to what's required by your customers."

DATA IN MANUFACTURING

Data plays a key role in smart factories and allows producers to react quickly to problems that arise during the production process.

Dr Carter said: "When you are continually monitoring the manufacturing process, not just in terms of what is coming out of the other end but through diagnostics during the whole process, you are able to measure what's happening where and when.

"When a fault occurs you know why and know what adjustments to make."

Dr Carter also suggests that by having a production process bolstered by laser technology and robust diagnostics, it's possible to respond to requests from customers that the manufacturing industry would normally be unable to fulfil.

He added: "Lasers can be used for optical measurement tools which allows you to carry out precise measurements as you go through the production process. If you are measuring something using light, you are measuring it in terms of a wavelength which is incredibly accurate.

"If a customer likes a product and asks for one hundred thousand of them with a very slight change, it is very likely that the request would be refused as it would involve changing the entire production process.

"If you have the online diagnostics to measure exactly what is happening while you build it, then there is no reason you could not change the process to meet the requirement.”

HISTORY

Scotland's photonics sector is a £1bn industry and employs around 4,000 people across Scotland with the industry having roots back to the 17th century when James Gregory invented the modern reflecting telescope.

Scotland’s modern optical industry was created with the founding of Glasgow optical engineering firm Barr & Stroud in the late 19th century which made its name in developing rangefinders for the Royal Navy.

Throughout the 20th century, Scotland’s universities have provided the foundation for a new generation of photonics businesses.

Current major players include defence firm Leonardo, laser and photonics systems provider M Squared, wireless communication technology specialists pureLiFi and Optos who provide devices to eye care professionals.

Dr Carter said: "Scotland does very well in the area of photonics and it is an area in which the country excels.

"There are a lot of universities involved in photonics and a lot of companies requiring people with that knowledge.

"The industry is also driven by spin-out companies, such as Chromacity, emerging from these universities which drives innovation and ensures that the industry is continually evolving."

EXPORTING

Economic growth comes from being able to export not only goods but also technology and Dr Carter points to the dissimilar material welding technique being pioneered at Heriot-Watt University as an example of Scottish innovation in precision engineering that is attracting global attention.

He said: "In high value manufacturing, there's a requirement to join things together on a small scale and, often, this is done with glues and adhesives.

"This can cause problems in industries where a controlled atmosphere is needed, such as the space industry as the glue will eventually decompose.

"We have been looking at removing adhesives from the manufacturing process and have worked out a way of welding material together using very short pulse lasers.

"Welding together glass and metal should be impossible but it turns out you can do it if you use the right tool for the job, and the right tool for the job is a short pulse laser.

“We have had interest in the technique from around the world including NASA and the European Space Agency."

Dr. Carter also explains how lasers, when integrated with optical diagnostics, are helping in the fight against cancer with medical device manufacturing also a key part of the new National Robotarium.

He said: "Our academics are working on a cancer treatment which involves removing cancer cells without causing excess damage to healthy tissues.

"Take the bowel, for example, which is very thin and there is not a lot of leeway to remove the cancerous tissue without causing significant damage.

"Using a highly controlled laser process, you can remove only the part that you want and the resolution it offers means that you can remove cell-by-cell if required.

"This brings in the problem of what to remove and, by integrating optical diagnostics, you can identify those cells that are cancerous and remove only them."

The National Robotarium is a collaboration between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, and is supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government as part of the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal - a 15 year investment programme jointly funded by both governments and regional partners.

To find out more about the projects being developed at the National Robotarium and to discuss collaboration enquiries, please visit