The University of Warwick's Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) is to set up the Warwick Digital Laboratory - a £50m research environment for product development.

The lab’s work will include use of emerging 3D visualisation techniques and interactive tools to bring together designers with customers in the conceptual design, prototyping and testing of products in virtual reality before production.

This WMG said such technology is a good catalyst for innovation as the cost of design failure in a virtual world is little more than ‘a learning experience'.

The lab will carry out research in many fields including digital manufacturing, mass customisation and digital healthcare. Construction will begin this year on its £12.5m building, which will provide a research base for multidisciplinary teams with expertise in areas such as manufacturing, medical informatics, electronics fabrication and nanotechnology.

Work on digital manufacturing will support the lifecycle of products, from the early stages (so potential customers will be able to visualise and interact with virtual products) to disposal (so policy makers can be shown that there will be environmental harm).

Another aim is to support mass customisation, based on the idea that consumers want individualised products at the same cost as mass-produced ones. The promise of digital technology is that it will allow the consumer to ‘insert themselves’ in the production process so products can be customised to their individual needs and assembled wherever in the world the appropriate technology is available.

In the field of healthcare systems, researchers will use advanced digital tools to enhance medical diagnosis and care, and create realistic virtual environments for training and design.

Such technology could simulate hospital processes, such as accident and emergency procedures; support visualisation for pre-operative planning; and improve clinical interventions – for example by enabling tailored implants through scanning and rapid manufacturing.

The development of virtual reality systems to present images and data will also improve understanding of how people judge the quality of products and services. The WMG added that the lab will support both marketing and operational functions, and will also use “serious games” - games designed for a business purpose - to increase business agility and efficiency.

The idea to create the lab came from WMG director Lord Kumar Bhattachary. Three leading professors have already been appointed to work in lab - one from the US, one from Singapore, and one from Bristol University - and the WMG is in the process of appointing three more.

Speaking about the project, Prime Minister Tony Blair said, ‘The Warwick Digital Laboratory will provide a high-quality research environment for multidisciplinary teams. One aspect of this research is creating realistic virtual environments for the training of surgeons or the design of new operating theatres. This is research which will position the


at the forefront of medical technology.’