Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

University of Warwick to create Digital Laboratory

The Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick in England is creating a Warwick Digital Laboratory – a STGĀ£50 Million pound project which will provide a high quality research environment that will allow researchers to develop techniques that will place consumers right inside a mass customization production process for a vast range of future products.

The idea of creating a Digital Lab came from WMG Director Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya. Three of the fields of research to be undertaken in the Digital Lab include:

- Digital Manufacturing; a “cradle to grave” approach can be adopted for all products, where from conception (where potential customers can visualise and interact with a virtual product) to disposal (where policy makers can be shown that there will be no negative environmental impact)

- Mass customisation – consumers want individual products at the same cost as mass produced items. Digital technology allows the consumer to “insert themselves” in the production process so their product can be personalised to their individual needs and assembled wherever in the world the appropriate technology is available.

- Digital Healthcare; incorporating advanced digital approaches for the enhancement of medical diagnosis and care, as well as creating realistic virtual environments for the training of surgeons or the design of new operating theatres.

The facility will also explore using virtual reality methods of presenting images and data, to: help understand how people judge the quality of a product or service (Product Perception); support both marketing and operational functions; use ‘Serious Games’ to increase business agility and efficiency.

The Warwick Digital Laboratory will be housed in a STGĀ£12.5M building, which will begin construction before the end of 2006, and which will provide a research base for multidisciplinary teams in areas as diverse as manufacturing, medical informatics, electronics fabrication and nanotechnology.

Three leading Professors have been appointed to work in the Digital Lab, one from the US, one from Singapore, and one from Bristol University in England, and Warwick Manufacturing Group is in the process of appointing three more.

The Laboratory has drawn the attention of British Prime Minister Tony Blair who said: “When we talk about ground-breaking science with practical applications, we need look no further than the West Midlands” (the name given to the region of England centered around the city of Birmingham). “The Warwick Digital Laboratory will provide a high quality research environment for multidisciplinary teams. One aspect of this research is creating realistic virtual environments for the training of surgeons or the design of new operating theatres. This is research which will position the UK at the forefront of medical technology.”

The Digital Laboratory will use the power of emerging 3D visualisation techniques, and interactive tools, to research how to bring together designers with customers in the conceptual design, and prototyping and testing of a products ‘in a virtual reality before production. This technology is a particularly effective catalyst for innovation as one can be extremely inventive in the virtual world of digital manufacturing since the cost of design failure in a virtual world is little more than ‘a learning experience’. The technology will also be used to look at the simulation of hospital processes (eg accident and emergency), visualisation (eg of pre-operative planning), clinical interventions (e.g. tailored implants through scanning and rapid manufacturing).

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