Located at Thornton Science Park near Chester (formerly the site of the Shell Technology, Exploration and Research Centre), the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering features purpose-built laboratories and industrial facilities designed to deliver hands-on, practical guidance and advice covering a wide range of technologies. Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the project boasts a number of unique features, one of which is that masterclasses are run by practising manufacturing professionals and suppliers with significant experience in their chosen specialist subjects.

I2C beneficiaries are offered a range of masterclasses including a two- day foundation workshop examining new product innovation and concept realisation, an overview of product and process development strategies and commercialisation opportunities. Senior I2C Project Engineer Barry Gleave explained: “The aim of this initial stage is to allow beneficiaries to develop their own organisational tools, templates and structures. Using these, they can establish a system that is bespoke to their business and which can be applied across it to assess all new concepts and ideas before any significant structural changes, investment or other expenditure needs to occur.” Following the Foundation phase, beneficiaries move into Stage two which Barry describes as the ’Technical Intervention‘ part of the project and which is designed to take the first steps towards the actual production of an approved product or process. At this stage, delegates have access to I2C’s specialist equipment, engineers, academics and bespoke support services. These combine with a jointly agreed innovation plan, which also sets out the wider scope of further development together with desired timescales and deliverables leading to the production of a working prototype. Included at this stage is access to I2C’s on-site CAD, FEA, CFD, 3D visualisation and full prototyping facilities using a variety of processes.

The last stage in the I2C project is described as the ‘advanced Intervention’ stage in which the critical final elements of manufacturing a new product and introducing it to market are covered. Of especial value to delegates is that this stage of the project can include introductions to other advanced manufacturing facilities and further fabrication or manufacturing experts as well as prototype manufacturing businesses. The unearthing of further funding routes and the establishment of additional collaborative pathways are also included at this point.

With robotics and automation playing such a pivotal role, not just in the manufacturing arena but across so many other commercial sectors, the I2C project needed a ‘Robotics Partner’ that could provide a cutting-edge robot to install at the University. It also needed a supplier that was prepared to provide the necessary expertise, time and ongoing support in the many areas where robotics can be used. Another key consideration in the robotics partner selection process was that the chosen company could demonstrate meaningful lineage in the business and also had a model in the range that was flexible enough to be suitable for the purposes for which I2C was established.

Following discussions with a number of potential partners, Kawasaki Robotics was declared the chosen partner and, in December 2018, the company installed and commissioned a brand new duAro twin-arm Collaborative Robot into the I2C Prototyping Lab at Thornton Science Park. The unique double arm of the new robot is what gave rise to its name, by taking the ‘du’ from dual and ‘Aro’ from the words ‘arm’ and ‘robot’. Kawasaki Robotics has also been tasked with presenting ongoing masterclasses on robotics and automation as required by the courses.

Kawasaki’s duAro is an interesting choice for the I2C project because it is one of the very latest generation of SCARA robots and is designed to co-exist in the workplace alongside human personnel. duAro can be speedily programmed to perform an almost limitless number of tasks which are typically undertaken on production and assembly lines, including ‘pick and place’, the dispensing or application of adhesives and sealants, material removal, machine tending and materials handling. The entire self-contained duAro unit has been designed to use the same workstation space as a person would. “This means that, unlike most robots, especially those involved in assembly, positioning or placement tasks, the latest duAro robot has a wheeled base and can thus be moved around the factory floor at will, plugged in to any nearby standard 13amp 3-pin socket and put to work in an instant,” says Kawasaki Robotics’ Ian Hensman.

Further, Ian points out, thanks to the introduction of new ‘teaching’ software, using either a standard tablet or Android mobile phone, tasking the duAro robot is simple and quick allowing its twin-arm, 4-axis capability to get to grips with work swiftly and without specialist training being required for supervisory personnel. “This is especially important for many SMEs of the type that are embracing the I2C project at Chester,” he continues. “Many SMEs involved in manufacturing or assembly have multiple production runs and might need to change projects frequently during a working week, so they need a robot that can change with them. duAro can do so with the minimum of downtime for reprogramming. This is precisely the environment that the new duAro was designed for, and its unit cost means that most operators can see a 100% return on investment measured in months rather than years – another vital consideration for all businesses but especially so for SMEs”.

Introducing beneficiaries to the advantages of robotics as a key part of the automation process was another reason behind I2C’s choice of duAro. Ian Hensman explains: “As a business grows it can operate multiple duAro robots and can choose to control each of them either individually or centrally from a single tablet if required. It makes duAro ideal for SMEs who need flexibility and want to employ more staff to take care of the other aspects of the business that need to grow as a result of the increased output from the shop floor. Even as a shift supervisor might allocate daily tasks for a number of different operators when they arrive for work, so the supervisor can also position each duAro quickly and then programme any or all of them from a single tablet in one go.”

The I2C Project is managed by the University of Chester’s Commercial Operations Directorate. Barry Gleave concludes: “Working with Kawasaki is a great opportunity for our I2C beneficiaries, they are manufacturing professionals and so are our project Engineers. It is vital that all the partners we choose to work with can be trusted – and are suitably qualified - to provide independent, unbiased and clear expertise in their field. The primary objective for I2C is to provide SMEs with the knowledge and skills that can help them design things better, manufacture them more efficiently and get them to market soonest with the best prospects of success. Although our Kawasaki duAro robot has only recently been installed, our engineers and beneficiaries have been delighted with its arrival and its obvious ability. It is a real asset to our project and we are delighted to have such a pool of practical robotics knowledge accompanying it which is also made available to us.”