Manufacturing a better world

Those of us who have spent our careers working in and thinking about manufacturing know how important it is. At the IfM, we have people researching – and teaching – many different areas of manufacturing. Whether we are exploring better ways to manufacture carbon nanotubes, or to design more resilient supply chains or to develop new business models, what we have in common is that all of us are passionate about what we do.

We believe that manufacturing matters. The world is facing many challenges. By 2050 we are likely to have 9 billion people on this planet. How can we ensure that every one of those people has clean water, enough food to eat and access to decent healthcare? How can we ensure that we will have sufficient – and clean – energy? And how can we increase the availability of rewarding jobs and improve standards of living across both developing and developed societies?

Practical solutions
There are some clear ways in which the research we do can help to address some of these challenges. We are working with colleagues across the University to develop innovative biotechnology and manufacturing technologies that can help diagnose deadly diseases, and our nanomanufacturing team is helping to develop more energy efficient batteries and more effective water filtration devices. Our work on supply chains is directly supporting global food safety and food security and, of course, our Centre for Industrial Sustainability is focused on developing practical ways in which industry can become more efficient and less resource hungry and, in the process, sustainable.

Seizing opportunities
But it is not all about solving problems. Manufacturing is as much about seizing opportunities. New additive manufacturing processes are enabling new distributed manufacturing models and the advent of mass customisation. As demonstrated by our two inspiring alumnae, these technologies and the new ways of working they enable are already being put to good use in disaster relief situations and to support local enterprise in developing economies. In pharmaceuticals, our Centre for International Manufacturing is looking at how continuous production technologies mean medicines can be made in larger volumes in different places, potentially offering patients greater customisation and personalisation. These are all fertile areas of study for our researchers.

There are also other ways in which IfM research is important. Manufacturing is about understanding how to take a scientific or technological breakthrough and use it at scale. But it’s not just about developing new production technologies and building smart factories, important though that is. It’s also about making them work commercially, finding the right business model, designing the right supply chain and leveraging all the connectivity and analytics of the new digital world. The work we do here is about finding new and better ways to do these things, to bring innovative products and services to market in order to deliver ongoing economic and social benefit.

Addressing grand challenges
Another important strand of work at the IfM is focused on how can we help organisations make progress in addressing global ‘Grand Challenges’. Even defining one of these grand challenges is problematic. Understanding what we are trying to achieve is hard enough, let alone how to go about it. Putting a man on the moon – or, indeed, a woman on Mars – has a clear objective. But when it comes to determining what constitutes success in relation to, for example, global health outcomes, different stakeholders will have different views.

Challenge-led research can be very different to traditional academic research. For example, addressing manufacturing related grand challenges may require significant advances in engineering tools and infrastructure – requirements for success which may not be evident from the outset. It generally requires the bringing together of academic disciplines, practitioners and stakeholders – many of whom are not used to collaborating with each other. Grand challenge research also needs ongoing input from fundamental science, technology development, engineering demonstration and scale-up efforts.

The scale, scope and complexity of these endeavours means that in most cases they need new sets of partnerships and completely different cultures of collaboration. The IfM’s Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (CSTI) is exploring the implications of this complexity for those government R&D agencies charged with supporting challenge-led innovation. How can funding agencies strategise, cooperate and coordinate around grand challenge research endeavours? How can they design effective programmes for supporting initiatives which can cope with all this complexity? How can they ensure research activities are informed by the right mix of disciplines and communities – not only researchers and industrialists, but users and stakeholder groups? How can they identify appropriate challenge ‘stretch goals’, assess the potential for impact of particular proposals, and measure the success of such complex endeavours?

One of the ways in which the IfM is uniquely well placed to support these national and global challenges is through its research-meets-practice model. The IfM has long been a centre of excellence for roadmapping research. Through IfM Education and Consultancy Services (IfM ECS) this powerful technique for developing strategy and building consensus around a shared vision has been widely deployed in the public sector, both in the UK and internationally. With the development of Policy Links, a new knowledge transfer unit within IfM ECS, we are further enhancing these tools and providing additional analytical capabilities.

While we have people with different skills and experience under one roof, the IfM is a division of the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department. Collectively, we share the engineer’s guiding principle to use our knowledge and skills to make something better.

Andy Neely

This article is an abridged version of the introduction to Issue 7 of the IfM Review.