Manufacturing research Hubs aim to boost commercialisation of early stage research

Cars built almost entirely from recycled metals and new manufacturing processes for emerging optoelectronics technologies are just some of the targets of two £10m research centres being created in the UK.

The two new manufacturing research hubs, designed to tackle some of the long-term challenges facing industry, are being established with £20m funding from the EPSRC.

The hubs, which will be based at Southampton and Brunel Universities, will also be backed by an additional £58m from industry.

The new EPSRC Manufacturing Hub in Future Liquid Metal Engineering at Brunel University, for example, which will be led by Prof Zhongyun Fan, will focus on challenges in the metallic materials industry. These include increasing energy and materials costs, tightening environmental regulations and skills shortages.

The hub, which will be supported by researchers at Oxford, Leeds, Manchester and Imperial College, will initially focus on the automotive industry, and later the wider transportation sector.

It will act as a technology proving ground and help to shorten lead times from concept to industrial production, according to Dr Robert Felstead, senior manager for manufacturing in the Manufacturing the Future theme at the EPSRC.

“The hub’s long-term vision is for the global demand for metallic materials to be met by full circulation of secondary metals, with only the occasional addition of primary metals each year,” he said.

The researchers will be developing methods to enhance and control a process known as nucleation-based solidification, in which the atoms of molten metals bond to form crystals.

They will initially demonstrate the technology in light metals such as aluminium, and then extend it to other metals in the longer term, Felstead said.

The EPSRC National Hub in High Value Photonic Manufacturing at Southampton University, led by Prof Sir David Payne, meanwhile, will support the UK photonics industry. The hub will help companies to improve their manufacturing processes for the production of photonics components, build prototype parts and sub-systems, and act as a one-stop-shop for trialling user ideas and developing new manufacturing processes.

The hub will also develop new photonics manufacturing processes that will enable rapid commercialisation of emerging technologies.

In particular, the researchers will be developing new low-cost manufacturing techniques for metamaterials, including those that allow the nanostructures to be patterned across large areas.

They will also focus on silicon photonics, including investigating techniques to integrate silicon with optical fibre devices and light sources.

Thirty seven companies have invested a total of £12.5m in the hub, which is designed to help the security, communications, space, semiconductor and healthcare industries.

“There is a huge amount of photonics research going on at Southampton University, and this will be quite a large bridge towards taking that out into industry,” said Felstead.