A nice robot arm, doing its robot arm thing

‘There was no equivalent of Zoom for running a lab’: Matt Reed, Materials Innovation Factory

Image credit: University of Liverpool

Strategy director at the University of Liverpool’s Materials Innovation Factory Matt Reed is spearheading a project to harness Industry 4.0 to create ‘Covid-19-resilient virtual laboratories’ for both academic research and industrial R&D.

“Lockdown was really interesting in the way it affected the way different people worked,” says Matt Reed. “Office workers decamped, set up at home, downloaded Zoom and just got on with it. No new technology was required for that. All the things they needed were on their laptops. But it had a big impact on the way these organisations did their work. There are businesspeople I know that are already cancelling their office leases because they just don’t need office space to run their businesses anymore. Offices? Done.”

Reed, who is strategy director of the Materials Innovation Factory at the University of Liverpool, is setting the scene for how industrial research laboratories got caught between a lockdown rock and a hard place. “Meanwhile in factories,” he continues, “companies prioritised their activities to keep them open by applying tight control measures. Many facilities kept operating because they’d already invested in digitally controlled production lines. They sent their office workers home and the factories got on with it, too.”

However, laboratories, contends Reed, are neither offices nor factories. “There was no equivalent of Zoom for running a lab and no factory production protocol. Labs are different: they’re collaborative spaces where what you have is a collection of specialist bits of equipment that sit around, with people using them in a different way to how they would in a factory. It’s actually closer to a craft workshop. Imagine a small space that makes custom acoustic guitars. It’s more like that than a factory. You’ve got people taking bits of a guitar around the workshop stringing together the operations.”

Reed paints a picture of a lab technician with “a list of things I’ve got to do, and I’ve got my workflow. From the outside it looks chaotic, but we all know what we’re doing. When it came to Covid-19, this presented big problems. You can apply regulations – such as staying two metres apart – in a static environment. But in a dynamic environment such as a laboratory, it falls to pieces.” Reed estimates the impact of social-distancing regulations immediately reduced operational efficiency in laboratories to as little as five per cent. This is critical because “labs are used widely across the economy to create value. I reckon the closure of labs in the UK due to Covid-19 has cost the economy £3bn in innovation activity. That’s a massive hit.” Reed reduces the scenario to its simplest terms: “Your lab’s shut down. You can’t use Zoom and you’re not a factory. What do you do?”

While one of the most obvious and immediate consequences of Covid-19-related lockdowns and social distancing was the abrupt and near-universal switch to digital technologies for the day-to-day work of businesses worldwide, this evolution from ‘office first’ to ‘home-digital first’ was not applicable to the laboratory environment, with the result that organisations relying on lab work to create value were faced with a stiffer challenge. Seeing the problem as an opportunity, Reed established a project at the Materials Innovation Factory to harness the digital technologies driving Industry 4.0 – Big Data, digital twinning, IoT, automation, robotics and AI – to create what he calls Innovation 4.0. This in turn would create ‘Covid-19-resilient labs’ for both academic research and industrial R&D that could operate in the virtual space with a minimum of human interaction. This approach, says Reed, dramatically alters what lab work looks like, while boosting the productivity of organisations implementing it.

For ‘Covid-19-resilient’ read: remote-controlled robots. Reed says: “Instead of having a factory production line in the lab – and we have got things that look like that – what we’ve already managed to do here is develop a ‘robotic researcher’ to put workflows together as if it were a lab technician. It’s important that you do this by giving the robot the capacity to work in an ordinary lab with ordinary lab benches along with ordinary bits of kit designed for humans. Then give it enough autonomy to run its own workflows. Yes, the problem for labs is harder than offices and factories. But we’d already been working on a solution, specifically the mobile robotic researchers developed by our academic director Professor Andy Cooper, that will give you the opportunity to make a laboratory more like a Zoom office environment.”

What this means is there is minimal human set-up, with lab activity driven from a Covid-19-secure distance. Reed cites an example (covered in Nature) in which PhD candidate at Liverpool Benjamin Burger set up the laboratory in three hours, “and let it run autonomously for eight days. That robot runs around and makes those workflows exactly as a human being would.” Professor Cooper takes up the story: “Our strategy here was to automate the researcher, rather than the instruments. This creates a level of flexibility that will change both the way we work and the problems we can tackle. This is not just another machine in the lab: it’s a new superpowered team member, and it frees up time for the human researchers to think creatively.”

Matt Reed portrait - inline

Image credit: Nick Smith

Based on campus at the University of Liverpool, the Materials Innovation Factory is a “translational research facility, bringing together world-class knowledge leadership in materials chemistry, laboratory automation and digital chemistry.” But it doesn’t stop there because, as Reed says, these disciplines are combined with “business activity” to “bring together research and commercial organisations to create innovation”. The £100m facility is the result of a 15-year partnership between Unilever’s R&D capability – whose global headquarters are about five miles away – and the university. Back in the beginning, “what the partners wanted to do was to transform how chemistry was done by applying robots and digital techniques”.

The Materials Innovation Factory itself is a four-storey building housing in the region of 200 academic researchers as well as 100 industrial R&D personnel from both Unilever and other companies. “As a layer-cake, the ground floor is an open-access facility with about £20m of advanced scientific equipment. Anyone can come to use that on a pay-as-you-go basis: SMEs, academics, individuals.” The next floor up is home to Unilever’s global robotic laboratory, and the top two floors contain academic research teams “led by two of the top academic researchers at the University of Liverpool”, Professor Matt Rosseinsky and Professor Andy Cooper.

Reed first got involved with the Materials Innovation Factory in 2013 while working at Unilever, leading the multinational’s “very significant” £20m investment, which in turn unlocked central government investment of £11m that, with further contribution from the university itself, resulted in a total initial investment of £68m. This enabled the construction of a completely new building and recruitment of a new team, “that’s been fully up and running for about three years now. The concept was that it should be ‘open by design’: the architecture is open, the operating model is open, there are low barriers to engagement for people to come to use it.” Reed goes on to say that to put the Materials Innovation Factory in context, it’s his belief that as a single facility, “it’s one of the largest in the world in terms of the scale of capability and probably unique in the UK in that it is both open for business while achieving the highest level of academic science at the same time. That’s not normally what happens at universities.

“If you go to other universities in the UK, you might find similar equipment and people, but you will not find them all in the same place or organised in a way that’s easy to access if you are coming from outside the university.” The roadmap to success, says Reed, is “how you make your world-class science easily available to people”. The 58-year-old innovator describes this approach as being “fundamentally different” from when he first entered industry in the 1980s, when comparable set-ups – if they existed at all – were routinely ivory-tower university research faculties that “might happen to be quite good at talking to companies”.

What you’ve got today, says Reed, is the result of years of co-operation between academia and industry, heavy co-investment (“not a donation”), and a culture in which collaboration is “baked into the design”. This concept is critical for Reed, who, during a three-decade career as a scientist and innovator, has done extended stints at Shell Research and Unilever R&D in both the UK and the Netherlands. With a technical background in chemistry, quantitative microscopy and data science, he also has a Master’s degree in technology management and open innovation to go with published scientific papers, filed patents and co-authorship of three books. This experience has led him to the realisation that when it comes to innovative collaborations, philanthropic gestures are not the way forward.

“When I sat in the initial negotiations, I represented industry and there were individuals there from academia. Yet there was also a third stakeholder not present in those meetings: the UK taxpayer. With the government investing in this, how do you make sure that we’re not just delivering to Unilever and Liverpool University? You’ve got to create a broader opportunity, an innovation ecosystem and an economic impact out of this fantastic investment. That’s where we’re different.”

When describing industrial applications for mobile robotic laboratory assistants, it comes as no surprise that one of their main strengths is in error-prone and time-draining iterative tasks. “If you look at product development in a company like Unilever, a key part of that is something called “storage stability”. Let’s say you’re making a shampoo. You do all your science and development, but the key thing you need to know is that the product will still be viable in two years if you just left it on the shelf. Now there’s no shortcut to finding the answer to that. You can run a test over time and periodically check to see if the product is still OK. That’s a massive pain and it’s not very exciting and it’s tough work. But this is a completely routine activity that these mobile robotic assistants can take over.”

It’s boring, says Reed, but this is where robots earn their corn. Similarly, in the laboratory. While most of us have an image of high-end research environment handed down to them from TV and movies, in which every moment contains a breathtaking breakthrough, the reality is different. “The vast majority of the time in the lab is spent doing routine testing. In those labs the mobile robot doesn’t even spend its time as a scientific researcher: it’s a mobile lab technician, doing the tasks that people don’t like to do,” only with digital efficiency and without complaining. Reed goes on to say that understandably people with PhDs might feel that they’ve been put on Earth to do something slightly more intellectually stimulating than checking samples in an oven every Friday afternoon. Another significant benefit of relieving key academic personnel of some of this grunt work is that they can then redeploy this time “to think about more important things”.

“When we were first setting up the Materials Innovation Factory,” recalls Reed, “one of the big questions in my mind was how we could use this world-class knowledge asset we have here in Liverpool to drive regional economic growth.” Over the past three decades that economy has “improved massively” due to increased investment, “but the knowledge economy of the region – at about 20 per cent of the economy – is still not big enough. How do we get to 30 per cent high-paid, high-economic-impact jobs? I think the Materials Innovation Factory can play a role in that, and I spend quite a lot of time thinking about that, working out what are the right mechanisms and approaches to get that economic impetus. I don’t see it as just big companies and academia benefitting from all this great stuff that we’re doing here. I want to see it spilling over into the regional economy.”

If you look at the north-west of England, says Reed, “it has the economic scale of Greece. Yet the connection between the academic excellence in the Materials Innovation Factory and that economy is too weak. The trick is to ask how you can build those threads and connections to drive that impact.” One approach is simply to attract inward investment by building partnerships with organisations from outside the region, “bringing in revenue from project work. One of the things we’re currently looking at is how we take the idea of robotic labs, creating an incubator at Liverpool, where we can say: ‘look, this is world-class.’ That way we can create new investment, business and educational opportunities around that. If we can do that, we can deliver value to that unseen stakeholder in the room that we talked about right at the start of this project. The UK taxpayer.”


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