For Erik Sorto, robotics are a life-saver. Erik, a quadriplegic for 13 years, made headlines round the world a few weeks ago when he was shown using his mind to control a mechanical arm that could shake hands and get him a beer.
Life-changing progress for Erik and an illustration of how far the sector has come over the last few years. Dr Rob Richardson, director of the Government-backed £4.3m EPSRC National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems at the University of Leeds, is one of a growing number of experts across Yorkshire who are pushing those boundaries every day and helping move robotics further from science fiction into everyday fact.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council spent £2.6m on equipment for his new facility and the university has invested a further £1.2m in equipment and lab improvements. The support is there and the skills are obviously keeping pace, so it is down to the vision of people like Dr Richardson to keep Yorkshire at the forefront of this fast-moving science.
“The aim was for us to be a world leader in physically making robots,” he told me at the Clarion seminar. “And then to make a new breed of robots that can be in houses and do medical tasks.
“In the last five years people have started to see the full potential of robots and that they could impact all areas of society, and be of great help in manufacturing. People think of robots and they think of AI [Artificial Intelligence] and all the challenges with that, and perhaps they dismiss what a robot actually is, the physical embodiment of it.
“About two years ago we made the case for the UK having a facility to make these robots.
“That is what we are looking at. Not just making them cheaper and faster, but also having a structure that can have mechanics, electronics and computations in them.”
The model he has in his mind is simple and enlightening. Take a one centimetre cube of human, from a leg or a head, anywhere on the body and picture it in front of you. It is packed with systems, with no room for open space. Compare that to a one centimetre cube of robot and you see the challenge ahead – to scale everything down and design it to take up less space which either makes it smaller or creates room to add another element.
“It was our work in robotics that won us the centre in the first place, and it is now graduates and potential graduates who are seeing the potential here and want to engage,” he explained, adding that the process has to be as swift-moving as the sector.
“Leeds is a research-led university and our work on weird and wonderful robotics is what informs our teaching. We do the research and then teach it to our students. We are then making prototypes and demonstrating the potential of our machines and the principles for research and for large-scale manufacturing.”
Medical applications are one of the biggest markets for robotics, and miniaturisation is a key factor. If you are going in for a colonoscopy, you have to hope the science behind the scenes has moved past the laptop and on to something a little more..... insertable.
“You have to make them small, then make them work and then make them work inside the body, said Dr Richardson. “The materials have to be bio-compatible so they don’t cause irritation. The intestines are incredibly complex, and changing shape all the time, so for a robot, the locomotion task is really difficult.”
So, are there any limits to what he and his team could do? “To actually make these small, complex devices is incredibly hard and providing really small, long-term power cells has always been an issue. We have to move further away from assembling these things manually with tweezers and instead press a button to get them printed or created, which means that we can create bespoke robots more quickly.
“In the next year we need to be able to demonstrate what these machines can do. We have the world’s best collection of machines, so we need to have projects going on - which we have - to show their possibilities.”
That’s what Dr Richardson does at LS2 9JT. He invents the future. As the robotics sector travels into that future, it stops off at Milner Court in Harrogate. Not the most likely address for cutting edge technology, but the cluster mentality that is enabling Yorkshire’s agenda-setting progress in so many areas knows no geographical boundaries.
Milner Court is home to Synthotech, an innovative engineering company with a global reputation in the utilities sector, particularly gas.
Innovations director Wez Little says the company prides itself on a turnkey approach, doing everything from concept to reality with its own CNC machinery for handling computer-aided designs, injection moulding and 3D printing facilities – and it owes a lot to a relatively new funding option.
“We make robots for the utility industry, often using the OFGEM Network Innovation Allowance which was designed to stimulate innovation in the sector. “National Grid uses this mechanism to allow us to get on with developing the technology and it is proving to be a fantastic route for SMEs who can present an innovative idea, get a concept roughly assembled to prove the point and then make use of the funding opportunity.
Synthotech is using the NIA for its work on a polymorphic robot to work on gas pipelines. In this context, polymorphic means the robot can make a new decision based on information it receives. “It adjusts to its environment and can changes its shape or function depending on what it finds,” says Little.
“If it wants to drill a hole, but gets information that prevents that, then it won’t drill. That is down to inbuilt intelligence, and one of the biggest barriers to technology is that people have to use it and if it isn’t easy to use, it becomes technology that doesn’t work.
“It’s like the toy blocks that have to fit in certain holes. The robot has to look at the
‘block’, work out what its orientation is and where its centre is and how it will best fit through a particular gap. So we have to learn from existing technology and take it further on.
“We can do that by collaborating with the supply chain, academia, the legal sector and consultants to build an extended network of capability called ‘the hub’ which allows us to be very fleet of foot in taking new concepts through to reality. With a turnover heading for £5m and team of 46, Synthotech manufactures, assembles, embeds and does R&D and new product development for a global client base.
One of its most high-profile contracts is working with National Grid Gas Transmission on the £5.7m Network Innovation Competition’s Project GRAID (Gas Robotic Agile Inspection Device) to design and build a robotic inspection device for below-ground pipework at high-pressure gas installations. Working on that with them are two other SMEs, Premtech and Pipeline Integrity Engineers.
Little describes this four-year alliance as a game-changer, made possible by Synthotech’s innovation hub. This theme of collaboration sits well in Yorkshire and it’s a growing challenge for firms to look at ways of working with each other just as much as competing against each other.
“Yorkshire is a fantastic place for manufacturing innovation, and it would be great to assemble a team of senior stakeholders to share experiences and opportunities,” he says.
It helps to visualise this collaboration in terms of Erik Sorto’s brain-powered arm. The tech that makes it starts with design, then metal-bashing, nuts and bolts, computer programmes, wiring, mechanics, surgery and more innovation than ever before.
The strategy also sits well with David Wakefield, technical director of Huddersfield-based Manrochem. His company’s home page tells potential customers: “Remember - there are no stupid questions. If you don’t know, we might and then we have a way forward together.”
Dealing largely with the process industry – 80% of their work is designing and building chemical plants – Manrochem is marking its 25th anniversary this year and has process automation at the heart of many of its projects. “We are often technological translators,” said Wakefield, “so we can convert your desire to something that works. For instance, if ‘Fred and Bill’ are retiring and have run their part of the factory for 150 years between them, we need to sit with them and capture their knowledge and find a way of converting it into an automated sequence.”
Converting Fred and Bill into an automated sequence is where the process industry is now, and Wakefield is passionate about how it has all come about. “We are not standing over Fred and Bill to get rid of them. Their knowledge has to be retained because the next version of them doesn’t exist. When ICI collapsed it was taking in 1,000 engineering graduates every year.
That was 20 years ago, so that’s 20,000 graduates who would be running our plants missing from the system, just from one company.
“That’s what the bloody accountants did to it – they got rid of engineers because they didn’t understand what they did.
“Now they are starting to bring them back and David Cameron is talking about 50,000 new apprenticeships, which is great for the future, but in the meantime we have got a problem.
“The French have just started a discussion about re-industrialisation and how they adapt to the state their economy is in. They recognise that it needs a long-term approach to industry – a ten-year plan, not three months – and it requires a prioritisation of manufacturing.
“They are already doing something and they will take advantage of it and be supported by their government. Here, I feel that we won’t take advantage.” Robotics is one of the newer sectors to add to the list of great Yorkshire successes. Engineering, entrepreneurialism, innovation and now seeing into the future.
David Wakefield’s words of advice are timely, because it is one of the older issues – the skills gap – that may play a big part in the future of robotics. Leigh Martin, partner and head of intellectual property at seminar hosts Clarion, said an understanding of innovation can give the advantage back to aspiring growth focused businesses.
“Obviously this doesn’t come easily, and careful planning and preparation are key to executing this well. Synthotech, which worked with us as it developed its plans for its latest innovation, is a great example of this.
“By working closely with us, together we were able to identify and analyse any third party patents that had already been registered for similar technologies around the world, and ensure that Synthotech’s own developments were in fact ahead of the competition, and also that it avoided any infringement risks.
“The next stage was then to ensure that Synthotech’s own IP was protected so that it could ensure exclusivity for its innovation. Whether you are creating a widget for UK use only or a large piece of innovative machinery that will be imported overseas, it is my opinion that this sort of approach is vital if you wish to steer clear of IP problems and if you wish to protect what you have.
“Your technological innovation is what sets you apart from the competition and you need to ensure that no one else can copy you. “