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Confirm: Helping Ireland harness the power of smart manufacturing

Irish companies are embracing the move from mass production to customisation

Prof Conor McCarthy of Confirm, SFI’s smart manufacturing research centre at University of Limerick. Photograph: Sean Curtin/True Media

Prof Conor McCarthy of Confirm, SFI’s smart manufacturing research centre at University of Limerick. Photograph: Sean Curtin/True Media

 

Securing Ireland’s place at the front rank of advanced manufacturing globally is the overarching objective of Confirm, the SFI research centre in smart manufacturing hosted by University of Limerick.

Established in 2017, Confirm has just opened its new headquarters building in Limerick, which includes a testbed to house Ireland’s future factory demonstrators, an innovative virtual reality cave, 10 Gbps internet access, Ireland’s first private 5G digital manufacturing network, and a digital manufacturing lab with 3D printing and non-contact 3D part-scanning facilities.

The new HQ will act as the centrepiece of Confirm’s research network and will connect researchers, industry partners and the public to help raise the profile of manufacturing in Ireland and internationally.

“Confirm is an SFI-funded research centre which is co-funded by industry,” says director Prof Conor McCarthy. “We are really interested in looking at more efficient decision-making in manufacturing and in the supply chain. Confirm is essentially about helping industry make the right manufacturing decisions by developing new technologies based on fundamental manufacturing science principles, thus leading to major economic, societal and environmental impact.”

The centre is dedicated to fundamentally transforming industry to a smart manufacturing ecosystem by integrating intelligence within products, machines, production systems and supply chains. “We are working on finding ways to extract data from factories and supply chains,” Prof McCarthy adds.

“There’s lots of data flying around and it’s like gold if we can collect it and extract the value from it. We are carrying out fundamental research into this area to aid better decision-making in manufacturing.”

Industry 4.0

This will support Irish manufacturers in the move to Industry 4.0. “This is a very nice term for the fourth industrial revolution,” McCarthy explains. “The third was automation and robotics and so on, and is very well established in Ireland. Indeed, Ireland is regarded as a global leader in the manufacturing of products in highly regulated environments in industry sectors like medtech, pharma and electronics.”

But change is coming. The old paradigm of manufacturing lots of products to very high quality specifications at rapid pace is giving way to something very different.

“In the new landscape, everything is on a platform like Facebook, Airbnb, Uber and so on,” McCarthy points out. “Consumers want to be able to influence design of the product. They may want running shoes with their name on the side, for example. There is a move from mass production to mass customisation. Manufacturers will still produce lots of products quickly, but they will be increasingly customised. They will be very bespoke to the end customer. It will almost get to individualised products, that’s the holy grail.”

Manufacturing is a major force in the economy, with 4,000 enterprises contributing €112 billion in exports and employing 440,000 directly and indirectly

Achieving that degree of individualisation requires digitisation. “At present, we have a situation where the customer goes onto a platform, the designer is on another platform and the factory on yet another. The walls between them will be torn down.”

He gives the example of an iPhone which is designed in California and produced in China, with the supply chain managed in different hubs around the world.

‘Linear’

“It’s very linear. In the new world that linearity is being broken down. The customer, even the supply chain, can influence the design of individual products. The supply chain can indicate which product or model is selling well, and production and design can respond to produce highly personalised products. It’s almost getting down to the level of a cottage industry.”

Education and public engagement form another aspect of the centre’s mission.

“Manufacturing is a major force in the economy, with 4,000 enterprises contributing €112 billion in exports and employing 440,000 directly and indirectly,” McCarthy points out. “Part of our role is to educate the public about importance of manufacturing. It’s not a dirty job anymore. People in the industry are working with high-end technologies and robotics. There is also the gender issue. Only 20 per cent of the manufacturing workforce worldwide is female and Ireland is no different. There is a huge untapped talent pool there and we want to help the manufacturing industry avail of it.”

The overall aim is to build on Ireland’s status as a location for advanced manufacturing.

“Ireland has one of the most advanced manufacturing sectors in Europe along with Germany and Switzerland, ” McCarthy concludes. “We have brought together the best elements of both national and international manufacturing centres of excellence to create a truly world-class research facility to support Ireland in its journey to become a leading digital manufacturing powerhouse globally.”