Focus on research: Dr Eoin Hinchy, Confirm
1 October 2018 | 0
Confirm is a new SFI-funded research centre based at University of Limerick which aims to develop future smart manufacturing technologies. In this interview, post-doctoral researcher Eoin Hinchy talks about its attraction, what it means to have a ‘digital twin’ and the value of outreach.
Confirm is one of Science Foundation Ireland’s new research centres. What attracted you to it?
Growing up I had a fascination with how things worked and how things were made. I would look at something and try figure out what it was made from, how it worked, and how different parts were manufactured. I was constantly taking things a part for a look-see. One of my favourite TV shows was How It’s Made, which fuelled my manufacturing curiosity even further.
I started my PhD in 2012 with Lufthansa Technik Turbine Shannon (LTTS), which gave me my first exposure to real-world manufacturing. It was fascinating to see such colossal pieces of manufacturing equipment like vacuum furnaces coupled with their eye-watering costs. I learned a huge amount about manufacturing at LTTS, like process flows, rework, scrap, turn-around-time etc., which gave me a good foundation for my next role.
After my PhD I moved to Cork for 2 years to work for orthopaedic giant DePuy Synthes, part of Johnson and Johnson. I worked as a materials & manufacturing engineer on projects within the foundry and metallurgy lab, as well as bringing in new state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies.
I kept my ties with academia throughout, where I was involved in interviewing and onboarding co-op undergraduate students from several universities and ITs across Ireland. Deep down I always knew I wanted to end up back in academia.
In March 2018 I happened across an advertisement for a post-doctoral researcher with Confirm on smart manufacturing and ‘digital twins’. Up until that point, I had never heard of a digital twin. I found the concept fascinating, and I could already envisage many applications based on my experience in industry. I knew that given the skills that I developed over the past number of years in industry, coupled with my interest in manufacturing, I could provide value in this role.
I started with Confirm in July 2018 as the first postdoctoral researcher in the centre, which has given me a great opportunity to provide input to the operations team. There’s a great team of people working behind the scenes getting the centre up and running, and I’m delighted to be involved at such an early stage.
What exactly is a digital twin?
A digital twin is essentially a digital or cyber representation of something physical. So, when we refer to digital twin in smart manufacturing, we are referring to one, or a combination of three interlinked components: the product (the thing being made), the process (or processes), and the manufacturing equipment.
A digital twin is not just a digital CAD model, it encapsulates much more, and as a result is a very powerful digital asset. Digital twins are rooted in product lifecycle management (PLM), which stretches from product concept, into design & manufacturing, product use, product service, and maintenance and then disposal.
For example, in terms of design, the digital twin would have all the CAD models, but also the engineering drawings, tolerances, bill of materials etc. A common example of a digital twin is a gas turbine aircraft engine. The digital twin of this physical asset will include real-time operational data, historical operational data, maintenance history and future required maintenance steps, failure mode and effects analysis, CAD models, finite element models, computation fluid dynamics models etc. The engine manufacturer can collate all these data and use machine learning and artificial intelligence to develop more efficient and reliable engines based on this information.
At Confirm I’m working on something which is a little more grounded than what I have described above. I’m just over two months here, so I have been doing a lot of reading. I’m currently trying to design and develop a rig which combines the digital twin ‘trilogy: the product, the process and the equipment.
This rig aims to bend metal plate to 90 degrees and will have embedded sensors to record process data and feed this into a digital model via wireless IoT [Internet of Things] devices. The aim is to develop a proof of concept for the digital twin that can also be used as a showcase for outreach events.
As a mechanical engineer, the real challenge for me at the moment is figuring out how to interface the physical machine with the digital model.
How did working with DePuy grow your skill set? Was it the chance to work in medtech alone or did you get a broader sense of the relationship between industry and academia?
I learned a huge amount working at DePuy in terms of time management, project management and the medtech industry in general. I was involved in several ‘virtual teams’ with other DePuy sites in the US, which was a new experience. You soon get used to Web conferencing though.
I was based in the materials & surface technology [MST] group, which dealt with solving problems and researching new technologies at an early technology readiness level.
Because of this, I found DePuy wasn’t too far removed from academia. I would still find myself reading journal papers, or articles online on advanced manufacturing technologies. When I started in 2016, I think there was about 19 other people in MST who had PhDs, so there was a solid foundation of research ability within the team.
Just like LTTS, DePuy saw the value working with academic institutions too, co-funding PhD projects and also taking on co-op undergraduate students. This gave me a good picture of the broader relationship between the medtech industry and academia.
What sectors do you see smart manufacturing taking off in. Are some sectors (aerospace, medtech) more receptive than others?
I don’t think any sector is immune to the smart manufacturing juggernaut, but there definitely are sectors which I think are more receptive than others.
In all manufacturing sectors, as in our own personal lives, everything is becoming more connected and digitised with IoT devices. I’m not too sure what the real value of having a smart refrigerator or a Bluetooth-enabled toothbrush is, but in the manufacturing sector, there is real commercial value to be gained from implementing smart manufacturing technologies. This could be an increase in productivity, a reduction in time to market, and/or reduction in energy costs.
I think the medtech sector would be one of the most receptive to smart manufacturing than any other. From my experience, I have seen that multinational companies are willing to invest in breakthrough technologies if there is a benefit in terms of lower cost per unit, better product quality and/or a reduction in the cycle time. A prime example of the adaption of smart technologies in the medtech sector can be seen with DePuy, which was recently named in the top nine manufacturing plants in the world by the World Economic Forum due to their use of IoT technology with legacy equipment, which is a huge achievement.
I think the farming sector would be one of the slower sectors to adapt to smart manufacturing technologies due to the high capital cost of smart equipment and slower return on investment, however, there has been a great deal of work done in this area dubbed Agriculture 4.0 and Smart Farming.
You have been active in promoting Confirm and mentoring PhD students. Do you think there is value in adopting the approach of developing a community at this early stage of the centre’s existence?
Absolutely. Developing a community of practice is one thing Confirm is very keen achieving. One of our objectives is to engage with the public, which means much more than just engaging with manufactures. This means going out to schools, organising site visits, presenting at public events like the National Ploughing Championship, and the Young Scientist Exhibition. It’s all about building an interest in smart manufacturing, getting the public interested in Confirm, and developing the talent pipeline in terms of future researchers and engineers.
At DePuy I was involved in a STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths] project called Engineering in a Box, where a handful of engineers went out to local primary schools (fifth and sixth class) and taught pupils about different types of engineering like aeronautical engineering, process engineering, mechanical engineering etc. There were fun experiments and challenges which really got the pupils engaged, and it planted the seed engineering in their minds.
Confirm aims to do something like this, where we will engage schools and educate pupils on what smart manufacturing is, the problems and constraints which an engineer faces in the industry, and how to overcome different challenges. At the end of the day, the manufacturing sector is Ireland’s second largest employer, and at Confirm we feel that it is important that we keep manufacturing competitive in Ireland through building a community and the promotion of smart manufacturing technologies.