‘Henry’ manufacturer and UWE Bristol have ‘outstanding’ partnership – says Innovate UK

A two-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the manufacturer of ‘Henry’ and ‘Hetty’ vacuum cleaners has led to Innovate UK awarding it an ‘Outstanding’ grade –  the highest possible accolade given for a KTP. 

Numatic International Ltd manufactures the widely used Henry vacuum cleaners, which are a leading UK brand, with 950 staff building the devices by hand in the company’s factory in Chard, Somerset. The ‘Outstanding grade’ is rarely given and was awarded to the KTP, whose outcome is set to transform the way the company produces these popular appliances thanks to the skills and knowledge it has acquired from UWE Bristol.

The research and development carried out through the KTP means that, before the end of 2017, Numatic is set to complete its first ever semi-automated line, using two ‘cobots’ – robots that collaborate with humans. The system will provide huge benefits in assembly line efficiency. This will set it up to expand exports and the new technology could pave the way for future product innovations.

The KTP is a programme part-funded by Innovate UK (the UK’s innovation agency) and is a three-way partnership between a business, an academic institution and a high-calibre graduate (called an ‘associate’) with technical expertise.

Numatic’s Manufacturing Manager Stuart Cochrane said, “The aim of the KTP was to increase Numatic’s vacuum cleaner productivity by adapting the robots to work alongside humans in a safe and efficient way – without impacting jobs. We wanted to use automation to assist people, not replace them.”

Overseeing the project was Farid Dailami, who is Associate Professor for Knowledge Exchange in Manufacturing at UWE Bristol and works out of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL). With 30 years’ experience in robotics, he helped drive the project forward and bring it to fruition. Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) is a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol.

Farid Dailami said, “We employed Tim Yap, a Master’s graduate in electrical engineering, to work at Numatic as its associate. I helped him configure the robots to work safely alongside people and integrate them into the assembly line.

“BRL has two Universal Robots (URs) in its premises on UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus and Tim, along with other engineers from Numatic, initially carried out simulations on the machines over a seven-week period. Over several visits they designed and modified the tool that was fitted to the robot -that tool is key to tailoring the robot’s capabilities to what you want to achieve.”

Numatic subsequently bought two URs of its own and Farid helped the company set up the system to control the machines, visiting the firm on a weekly basis and assisting Tim in familiarising himself with the technology. With this new knowledge, Tim adapted the machines so that they could insert screws from the underside of the casing.

Alongside Numatic’s production engineer Paul Kelly and with Farid’s guidance, Tim also optimised the way a robot coils the power lead on the vacuum cleaner and assessed how to prevent the cleaning devices from wobbling when a robotic arm picks them up to place them in a box (too much wobble damaged the packaging).

Innovate UK assigns a grade to KTPs once they are complete. It awarded an ‘outstanding’ grade to the KTP between UWE Bristol and Numatic based on a delivery that was above and beyond the original project expectations.

Talking about the grade, Stuart Cochrane said, “From its inception, the project has had an outstanding impact on our business at Numatic and it is nice that this can also be externally recognised.”

This Partnership received financial support from the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships programme (KTP).  KTP aims to help businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK Knowledge Base.  KTP is funded by Innovate UK along with the other government funding organisations.

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