John Duckers pays a visit to the new Warwick Digital Laboratory at the University of Warwick.
The mother of all virtual environments – and a lot more beside – is opening this week in the Midlands.
The Warwick Digital Laboratory, at the University of Warwick, near Coventry, is a £50 million initiative aimed at boosting research opportunities. And some of the brightest minds in the country will be based there. It is a multi- disciplinary research centre where scientist, medics and industrialist are set to work together in close collaboration with other departments at the university.
Companies across the UK and indeed the world will be able to utilise its computer technology to develop new products and improve production techniques.
The hope is that it will have a significant impact on business, society and the economy, helping to facilitate the transfer of knowledge between academia and industry – something which historically we have fallen down on as a country.
Great on discoveries; not so great at exploiting them.
Developed by WMG, the international research and education group, it has been built next to the International Manufacturing Centre at the university.
Designed by internationally acclaimed architects Edward Cullinan, it has now been handed over by builders Norwest Holst and is in the process of going operational.
It is claimed to be the first facility of its kind in the world and will target manufacturing, health, security and a whole range of other sectors. And it could be doubled in size – work is scheduled to begin on a second £50 million lab later this year or early 2009 to develop areas like neuro-marketing and digital media.
WMG is home to 500 academics and researchers. The new 5,000 sq m building is part funded by regional development agency Advantage West Midlands.
Explaining the practical spin-offs for the future, Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, director and founder of WMG, said: “The future of the automotive industry is digital. Every car that is produced is jam-packed with things that are digital.”
The Lab would complement WMG’s existing connections to Jaguar and Land Rover, now owned by Indian group Tata.
Lord Bhattacharyya said: “We work with hundreds of suppliers as well. This will help them to develop new products and improve their processes in the future. My ambition is to make this a state of the art facility for the West Midlands that will be an icon for the future. It will be a focal point for research excellence.”
But it won’t only be for the car industry. He noted: “This is not just for manufacturers but, for example, also medical technology. It will be about developing e-security. Lots and lots of technology companies, from telematics to materials technology, can benefit.”
WMG recently agreed a deal with engineering consultancy Arup, which employs 600 people at the Blythe Valley Business Park in Solihull.
The arrangement will mean both organisations working together in research, training and the identification and exploitation of business opportunities.
But then WMG works with an amazing array of global companies such as Airbus, Barclays, Corus, Rolls-Royce, Royal Bank of Scotland, AstraZeneca, BAE Systems and Network Rail.
Prime Minister, then Chancellor, Gordon Brown laid the foundation stone of the Digital Lab in May last year. He said then: “WMG’s work is based on very strong collaboration with industry and provides a prime example of how the knowledge created in our universities can be transferred to make a difference in the real world.
“This is the future of our country. People sometimes say that Britain’s great days are behind us, our great heritage and traditions as we value them, but I believe our greatest days are ahead of us.
“Not only do I say that because we have got stability both politically and economically, that I think people recognise around the world; we have got an openness to the rest of the world: we are the great free trade nation and we have got a global reach with contacts on every continent.
“And, if we can do these next three things: that is to be the leader in science, to be innovating in every area of the creative industries, technology and everything else as well, and we can have world class education, then Britain can indeed be one of the great success stories of the global economy.”
And he praised the work of Lord Bhattacharyya.
“This is a superb personal achievement. Since 1980, when he started with an office, a chair and perhaps a secretary, over the years he has built up one of the greatest manufacturing centres in the world.”
WMG, he noted, trains more than 2,000 students, has a turnover of more than £120 million, and has got links worldwide.
“Everywhere I go, whether it’s India, China, Malaysia, Thailand or South Africa, people talk to me about the success of WMG, about the links that they have built up around the world as a result of the magnificent work that has been done, the dynamism, the energy and the brilliance of this one man,” said Mr Brown.
New professors have been recruited to run research programmes at the Digital Lab.
Prof Darek Ceglarek has joined WMG from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US. He is an expert in digital simulation, and has for long maintained close links to some of the world’s major automotive companies and their suppliers.
Prof Ceglarek specialises in new products and production systems. He said: “By actively collaborating with industries, universities can help with solutions that address their immediate needs as well as issues that are of importance five or ten years down the line. Such collaborations create learning opportunities for both sides and cut through many of the challenges that industries face on a day-to-day basis.
“WMG provides a unique environment to conduct research with rigorous industry collaboration, an opportunity that few universities can match.”
Prof Alan Chalmers is working to create the “mother of all virtual environments”.
An expert in high fidelity graphics, he is using new techniques to render “as there” virtual reality environments in order to make traditionally slow and expensive technology attainable for normal markets.
It could see nurses trained to give injections using a computer programme that models exactly what a real arm looks like right down to the layers of skin of which it is made up; in industry new products can be designed as if they were real to see how users might react to them; and in architecture buildings can be made real in a way which allows a much greater appreciation of just how they will look when constructed.
Third newcomer, Profe Sadie Creese, joined WMG from Qinetiq, the defence research group with a major operation at Malvern, to develop a new e-security group.
The new collaborative venture will focus on the development of world leading e-security research, education and knowledge transfer activities.
Prof GemmaCalvert is a specialist in neuroimaging and her work utilises MRI scanners, better known in the medical field, for product testing.
This should allow the true feelings of people about a product to be obtained – whereas at present testers tend often to be told what the individual, usually part of a focus group, thinks they most likely want to hear.
Prof Richard Dashwood has joined from Imperial College to head materials research where modelling will be a very important criteria. I got a sneak preview of what it is all going to be like as I toured the complex in the company of WMG technical resources manager Simon Fox.
There is a sweeping entrance to first floor level, and a sedum (a type of succulent plant) roof which dives down one side – the crowning glory of a building which the university hopes will achieve the highest benchmark of environmental excellence incorporating natural ventilation and high use of natural light.
There are four storeys.
Ground level is purely research, the first floor is a mix of research and informal meeting areas and incorporates a 100-seater presentational suite, the second floor houses various professors’ offices plus more research and a conference room and the third floor is open plan and earmarked for yet more research.
There’s even a digital library if, by definition, that is possible. I was touring the unit just as scores of workmen were getting it finished – dust, scaffolding, drilling, lots of crashing about, and the flotsam and jetsam of the building materials industry was everywhere.
But now high tech equipment, banks of computers and earnest researchers are turning it into a hotbed of knowledge.
There will be a constant field sound room to extend the work of Prof Paul Jennings, who has advised Jaguar and Land Rover on everything from engine noise to the way windows open and shut. He aims to push on into healthcare.
There will be visualisation labs and mock ups of the electrical systems in motor vehicles.
And much more.
Hence lots of acoustic baffling, designated quiet areas, and the calming effect of looking out over the impressive water feature of Academic Square, are no accident, offering the time and space for the sort of intellectual thinking from which breakthroughs emerge.
And given WMG’s record breakthroughs are virtually guaranteed.