In an old abandoned cigarette factory on the outskirts of Mullingar, a group of researchers are preparing the future of Irish industrial technology. The reallocation of the former Imperial Tobacco site is emblematic of how the Irish Manufacturing Research Center sees itself – building the industrial base of Ireland’s future on the foundations of the past and present.
But this is no dream factory for academic researchers preoccupied with blue sky thinking. The center focuses on the pragmatic manufacturing challenges of today’s businesses.
Nowhere was this more evident than in his response to Covid-19.
“As soon as Covid hit, we realized that the country was in a place it had never been before and that we were in a privileged position where the state had funded cutting-edge manufacturing research,” the director said. General Barry Kennedy, a former quality control expert. at Intel. “We have made a decision, a business decision, to step in now and play our part.”
The first thing they did was use their 3D printers to pump tapes to make face shields for hospitals and clinics.
“I will truly never forget – it was a pretty heartbreaking day when a nurse from the emergency department at Mullingar General Hospital walked into a state and begged us for anything we could give her that looked like a EAR. [personal protective equipment] because they had nothing.
“So we printed tons of masks, face shields for them and received them that afternoon. They literally took everything we had.
The center has supplied Mullingar Hospital as well as St James’s, Kerry General and hospices steadily since. She also began working with corporate clients with slack capacity as orders dried up.
They helped them manage the shift to PPE production, leveraging their network of companies to develop new business links to access the materials needed for this new supply chain.
He’s also done a lot of work on developing a closed face mask to protect frontline workers and others, like those in meat factories, who have to work in close proximity to each other. And he’s been involved in two separate fan projects.
Genesis of the crisis
But the Irish Manufacturing Research Center (IMR) isn’t limited to responding to immediate crises like Covid. Its genesis came in the middle of our last crisis, after the financial crash of 2008. Kennedy was in a management position at Intel at the time. Addressing its Managing Director, he underlined the almost unique position of Ireland, which has such a high density of large multinationals relatively close to each other.
“And I said, ‘I wonder if we could work together on common challenges that would give another reason the mothership wouldn’t leave the country.’ “
He appealed to gauge interest and, within 24 hours, had more than enough encouragement to continue. In a subsequent meeting, the group focused on energy efficiency and manufacturing productivity.
The government was setting up research centers at the time, so the group applied for funding and its two ideas were among the five approved. But the initiative was almost strangled at birth.
“When we got together as a business group, we said, ‘Well that’s wonderful,
we’re all together now in the spirit, we think it’s the right thing to do, but i can’t work with you because you’re a competitor of mine, so thanks for lunch ”, and we sort of finished, ”he recalls.
The answer, forged over time, was to avoid anything that might infringe on the company’s intellectual property or its specific products and instead focus on things like factory air handling systems, production line parts and processes; and machine efficiency.
“We worked for over a year, maybe a year and a half trying to get these companies to sign the legal agreements, with all the international lawyers – 28 international lawyers online – trying to negotiate consortium agreements. with them, but we got there.
IMR now focuses on four areas: energy efficiency; durability; collaborative robotics / advanced automation with a focus on digitization and the industrial internet of things; and 3D printing.
Demystify, derisk and deliver
“Our job is to demystify, reduce risk and deliver emerging technologies to manufacturers,” says Kennedy.
They were originally based at Rathcoole outside of Dublin and the Mullingar base will provide them with 35,000 square feet of space to use as a test bed for larger projects, such as robots, large 3D printers and a production line.
“We wanted to be on a main network where businesses could come from almost anywhere in Ireland and walk into our building in the morning, have a good day’s work and come home at night, without having to stay at home.” , explains Kennedy.
The Covid has delayed progress at the Mullingar site, but work on the project is catching up. Now employing 70 people, Kennedy expects the number to grow to 120 over the next two years “and we might see a scenario where that could actually double again due to market demand.”
IMR is funded by state, industry and competitive funding sources, such as EU grants. The model is that one-third of the funds come from each, although state funding tends to be required upfront to kick-start projects and prove their worth, with industry money coming in as they go. as the potential becomes clear.
The former Intel man said the IMR had exceeded its weight to secure grants, but was still little behind the target from the industry side.
The center currently works with 63 companies – including 33 multinationals and the rest of the local businesses – in multiple sectors. “We are agnostics,” Kennedy says. “We are not focusing on any sector. So we have food and beverage, ICT, pharmacy, biomedicine, engineering, automotive, etc.
“We don’t have this type of research center in the country. We have some great research going on in universities, but it’s a lot more early stage research. To have a space and a place where industry can come and seek answers to these new emerging technologies, we don’t have that, and that’s why we think this organization, IMR, is so important.
Robots and humans
“We don’t take things in and compete with other companies for the work they’re already doing,” he says. “Our job is to try to make them successful, to help Irish businesses succeed, not to take business from them.”
When Covid first struck, Kennedy feared for the future of the center.
“I felt like the first thing industries would do is walk, they would just try to barely walk on water, or in many cases, do nothing,” he says. “But we found that we were still able to get a certain number of contracts and that the companies still wanted to stay with us.
“I think they have started to recognize that these technologies are going to be essential if they are to survive in the long term. In fact, maybe even in the short term, as you are considering scenarios where, to help reduce the high density of people, having a robot working side by side with a human helps set up your production line and become more productive.
Ultimately, IMR would like to see itself as the engineering brains behind the future of the manufacturing process and the product.
“We are an organization that plays a vital role in translating all of these changes to come. They are coming fast and furiously and companies cannot keep up as they try to focus on producing their products today. Our job is to nudge them every now and then and say, ‘look at this here, because if you don’t, you’re going to be bankrupt’.
The seed of the idea nearly 10 years ago was just to stop a flight of multinationals out of state in what was a historic recession. Today, faced with a new crisis, its ambitions have grown. And, in Covid, his swift response to a whole new set of challenges increased his visibility and confidence.
“It’s just amazing when you get people behind a challenge that’s bigger than them, what they’re ready and able to do,” Kennedy says.