‘Chatty factories’ get feedback direct from users

UK researchers are collaborating on an initiative that will use the Internet of Things to deliver suggestions straight from consumers to manufacturers about how product designs can be improved.

The £1.5 million ‘Chatty Factories’ project is being led by Cardiff University and involves the University of Edinburgh, University of Nottingham, Lancaster University and Bath Spa University. Funding will come from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

By embedding sensors into products that people use in their daily lives, the goal is to create a single seamless process capable of continuously changing products based on data from the users. The concept is similar to techniques already rolled out in the aircraft industry to monitor the performance of jet engines, using real-time data from sensors to improve product design and manufacturing processes.

For example, a bike helmet that detects it has developed a crack underneath its surface could send a text message to its owner. Simultaneously, the information would be pinged back to the manufacturer so they could adjust their processes and improve the next batch of helmets on the production line.

Over the next three years, the ‘Chatty Factories’ project team will develop artificial intelligence capable of processing large amounts of data, explore ways in which sensors can be embedded into products, develop robots to re-skill the factory floors and make sure all of the interconnected products and processes are able to understand one another.

Each strand of research will be underpinned by the latest advances in cybersecurity, ensuring the creation of safe, secure and robust processes, as well as considering the ethical integration of human labour.

According to principal investigator Dr Pete Burnap from Cardiff’s School of Computer Science and Informatics, the end result could save significant amounts of time and money spent on consumer research, concept design, prototyping and manual labour on the factory floor, as well as providing ideas for brand new products.

“If manufacturers are creating high-end bikes worth thousands of pounds, but they are not being used as they are intended, how do we update the fabrication issues and reshuffle the factory floor between shifts, telling human and robot workers how to alter their duties within minutes?” he said.

“Our new method will enable manufacturers to sense the experience of the product, building something based on its actual use rather than its intended use.”

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