Ireland’s ‘Polymer People’ Lead Smart Manufacturing Revolution
Ireland is on the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution driven by advances in smart manufacturing. At the epicentre of this seismic technological shift is Athlone Institute of Technology’s (AIT) brand new smart manufacturing cell, which aims to take ‘people out of the processes, instead using robots, intelligent sensors and complex algorithms to improve the accuracy, reliability and speed of production lines.
“Using complex algorithms, we can actually teach computers how to optimise and adjust processes without the need for human intervention. If a part goes out of spec, the machine will realise and compensate immediately which has the potential to save companies large amounts of money,” Dr Declan Devine, Director of the Materials Research Institute at AIT, explained.
The smart manufacturing cell, which is funded by CONFIRM, a €47 million SFI-funded smart manufacturing research centre is currently Ireland’s only polymer-based test bed open to industry.
The cell houses a pilot line which CONFIRM’s six funded investigators – Dr Declan Devine, Dr Niall Murray, Dr Brian Lee, Dr Sean Lyons, Dr Enda Fallon and Dr Yuansong Qiao - all of AIT, intend to use to educate and familiarise industry with new smart manufacturing technologies and the benefits of their subsequent adoption.
“While there’s a lot of talk about smart manufacturing and industry 4.0, from a practical industry perspective, people’s perceptions of it are still very vague. It feels intangible,” Dr Devine said.
“For Ireland to move forward as a centre of smart manufacturing, it’s crucial that industry gets behind it. We’re trying to facilitate this by upskilling people in emerging technologies and giving industry a testing-ground to try out these new smart manufacturing capabilities.”
Ireland is ideally situated for a smart manufacturing revolution thanks to its strong manufacturing and ICT base. A microcosm of this, AIT houses two Enterprise Ireland-funded gateways on its campus – COMAND, which specialises in ICT engineering, and APT, which specialises in polymer processing. With a wealth of expertise to draw from, its new smart manufacturing cell represents the convergence of these technologies.
AIT has long been at the forefront of polymer research and innovation, producing generations of highly skilled polymer engineers who now form the backbone of Ireland’s thriving medical technology sector – a sector which is heavily reliant on polymer technology.
“We’re known as the ‘polymer people’ across Ireland and Europe. Polymer is vitally important to the Irish economy with over 200 companies in the sector,” Dr Devine explained.
In the Western world, where the cost of labour is high, the only way for companies to compete with countries with low-cost labour is through highly sophisticated, automated processes i.e. smart manufacturing.
“If Ireland wants to remain competitive, we have to act now before we get squeezed by low cost and high tech economies already embracing smart manufacturing. People might fear automation, but the reality is smart manufacturing will have an incredibly positive impact on the midlands and the Irish economy.
“Current research indicates that for every robot brought into a company, three highly-skilled jobs are created. None of these jobs are going to be minimum wage – they’ll be highly skilled, well-paid polymer, automation and software engineering jobs,” Dr Devine said.
“Our smart manufacturing cell is a national resource for industry to utilise. We want companies big and small to know that we are open for business. We have the funding, we have the people and we have the expertise,” he finished.