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It’s crucial to maintain Ireland’s advanced manufacturing advantage

Posted on 14 days ago by Laurentina Kennedy

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We must be ambitious and nimble to stay competitive, says the head of a research centre that’s at the cutting edge of digital analysis in materials processing​

Funded by Science Foundation Ireland, I-Form Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing works with industry to develop deeper understanding of, and digital tools for, complex manufacturing processes. Its mission is to shape the future of manufacturing through high-impact research into the application of digital technologies to materials processing. This sees the centre work with industry on low-cost, low-risk design of new products and the manufacture of high-value components exhibiting enhanced material performance, while reducing processing times and achieving improved process reliability.

“We carry out research in advanced manufacturing,” says centre director Prof Denis Dowling. “That’s very broad. We look at the digitalisation of materials processing. If you change a material from one form to another or if you fabricate a product and melt metal or a polymer to do it, we can use a range of digital tools to monitor what’s going on. That can deliver real-time feedback to an operator and enabled them to optimise the process and the processing conditions.”

This involves the use of sensors and internet of things (IoT) technology to collect data for analysis. “Using machine learning we are able to interpret processes in a much deeper way,” says Dowling.

By combining the real-time data with previous experience, the interpretations become much more accurate and useful. It’s all about making manufacturing processes more efficient and sustainable, according to Dowling.

“Ireland is number two in Europe for medical device manufacturing,” he says. “If you are making an orthopaedic device you start with a metal, very often in powder form. You fabricate that into a particular shape. If you have a deep understanding of that process and the processing conditions, if know how the product will behave and how the material will change during the process, you can optimise the process to fabricate the medical device.”

That understanding and real-time monitoring capability can also be used to eliminate process anomalies, as Dowling explains: “If you see a process going out of spec you can change it before a certain point and save that process run. If you are one third of the way through the run and know the conditions altered, you can halt the run. It’s about being a lot more efficient and effective by using digital tools to inform us of what’s going on.”

The use of technologies such as machine learning is also helping. “The speed at which the models are working means we are getting to a stage where we can really optimise processing conditions to save on materials and energy usage,” says Dowling.

That is particularly important at a time of growing raw materials shortages, he adds: “We will need three or four Earths to supply the raw materials we need if we continue to go the way we are going. We need to be much more efficient and sustainable in our materials use. When we reuse or recycle a material it may have contaminants and we need to understand how that will affect performance.

“The material may start out in a medical device but can be used in other applications. In additive manufacturing you can reuse the materials a number of times, but how many times? What changes in properties take place? You need to know the elemental composition and materials chemistry as well as the mechanical performance of the material.

“These are areas of research for us. Mechanical performance can be predicted through modelling. One company told us that by using our models they have reduced experiments by 90 per cent.”

Dowling says AI will be a game changer with respect to manufacturing. “If you can use AI to optimise processing or process conditions you can get ahead of the competition,” he explains. “It is critically important for Ireland to be at least as good as everyone else in AI. I-Form is assisting companies in the adoption of AI tools and techniques to help Ireland keep its position at the forefront of advanced manufacturing.”

The quality of the graduates coming out of I-Form is also of national importance. “To date, more than 130 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers have come through,” says Dowling. “They have a deep knowledge of manufacturing, materials and digital tools and a combination of skills that is really valuable to advanced manufacturing.”

Those skills will also be a competitive differentiator for the attraction of FDI in future. “Ireland’s competitiveness has been very much due to the tax regime but that is changing,” Dowling points out. “There is a global minimum tax rate. The Inflation Reduction Act in the US is investing $369 billion in certain sectors. The European Chips Act is investing €43 billion in semiconductor manufacturing. Ireland has done extremely well out of FDI over the years. Other countries are now starting to copy the Irish model. The only long-term competitiveness factor will be people and skills.”

Ireland’s investment in R&D is at the very low end in Europe, he says: “We are behind Hungary as a percentage of gross national income, which is lower than GDP. We need a deep pool of talent here for the future.

“If you look at Ireland’s development, investment in education from the 1960s onward allowed companies to come here. Ireland’s education investment is now lower than the European average. It’s important to look at that from a competitiveness point of view. It’s a slow burner and we will feel the impact in years to come. We need to be ambitious and nimble in how we approach it. We need to invest in our people and research infrastructure if we are to be competitive for future FDI.”