Harnessing academic innovations for commercial success in UK Power Electronics, Machines and Drives (PEMD)

Posted on 9 Jul 2024 by The Manufacturer

The UK has established itself as a global leader in research and development (R&D), housing some of the most advanced facilities and brilliant minds. This commitment to innovation has propelled the UK to fourth position in the 2023 World Intellectual Property Organisation Global Innovation Index (GII).

Our industrial landscape is equally impressive, with a rich history in the textiles, steel, and coal sectors. More recently, this has given way to high-value sectors such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, renewable energy, technology, and digital services. A commonality shared by today’s high-value sectors has been their ability to harness the innovation offered by UK R&D and academia and turn this into commercial success.

The gap between academia and industry has been one that has historically been difficult to bridge. Many still hold the belief that you must choose between academia and industry and that the two have vastly different values. This mindset leads to underexplored and underutilised innovation potential, limiting our global competitiveness.

Positively, things look to be changing. Alongside the successes in some of our high-value sectors because of well-executed industry and academic collaboration, data also shows that people are increasingly moving between the two more freely. In 2023, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) reported that there had been a significant increase (45%) in researchers moving to the private sector and that this was giving companies access to previously unexploited knowledge. Additionally, the number of undergraduates who now go on to take up research posts in universities following graduation has also increased (41%).

This is a trajectory that should be embraced, as shown by the likes of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, collaboration between academia and industry can have a transformative impact on our economy when deployed appropriately.

PEMD – The UK’s next high-value sector

Power Electronics, Machines and Drives (PEMD) is a sector with huge growth potential and is earmarked as one to watch due to the significant impact it will have on the UK economy in the coming years.

The PEMD sector is integral for propulsion in transportation, energy generation and distribution, industrial machines, and robotics. The transformation of PEMD will also be a crucial element in developing the next generation of motors that will drive the electrification of products and systems that previously relied on fossil-fuel-powered combustion engines. Rapid innovation within PEMD is critical for creating the products and systems of the future, whether it’s for mobile devices, transportation solutions, or carbon reduction technologies.

Successfully executing that rapid innovation hinges on enhancing collaboration between industry and academia, to strengthen mutual learning and economic growth.

Paving the way for more collaboration within PEMD

The PEMD sector has a UK supply chain that is actively investing in collaborative projects between industry and academia through relationships with Research Technology Organisations (RTOs) and universities.

Advancements in PEMD technology rely on the expertise within RTOs and universities to drive innovation. These institutions benefit from close collaboration with PEMD manufacturers as they gain an understanding of real-world challenges and can access industry-specific knowledge and opportunities for applied research. The challenge is the pace of progress needs to accelerate, and more relationships forged, to meet current demands from the markets on the PEMD industry.

Driving the Electric Revolution Industrialisation Centres (DER-IC), a network designed to reduce the cost and risk of manufacturing in PEMD, of which I am Chair, is exploring better connections between industry and academia. This includes delivering capabilities where gaps were identified during an industry-wide consultation prior to our inception. UKRI’s Driving the Electric Revolution Challenge, delivered by Innovate UK, has contributed to the development of the open-access DER-IC network I oversee, and its range of equipment and capabilities.

The economic value of bridging the gap

There’s huge economic value to be gained from a greater degree of collaboration. A government-commissioned review found that investment in university spin-outs in the UK increased five-fold to £5 billion in 2021. This is indicative of a growing recognition of the mutual benefits of academia-industry collaboration, particularly in addressing global challenges like electrification.

Investment isn’t merely financial; it encompasses creating an ecosystem that supports risk-taking and entrepreneurship within academia. Policies that encourage the commercialisation of research, alongside practical support structures like incubators and accelerators, can bridge the gap between innovation and application.

When a collaborative project engages with our facilities at DER-IC, we frequently find it opens doors to other opportunities. For example, the APC funded @FutureBev project, which partnered with us at the University of Warwick to test a new power inverter using the power electronics module assembly, reliability and failure analysis facility. This equipment was commissioned to support the @FutureBev project, which was completed this April, and involved six partners including the DER-IC teams at the University of Warwick and CSA Catapult.

The inverter testing project marked a new chapter for this supply chain. Car manufacturers have previously been testing inverters with motors in high-cost dynamometer facilities that needed to contain high-speed equipment failures. The DER-IC facility, created with input from academic and industry specialists and using a Hardware in the Loop approach, is smaller, less costly, easier to access, and can be applied in other sectors. The @FutureBev project used this new equipment to test components in isolation, specifically the inverter, without the motor itself.

All partners have benefitted from this project, with one successfully entering the automotive supply chain, acquiring new customers, and expanding its manufacturing capacity as a direct result.

Pathway to commercialisation

Looking ahead, embedding the pathway to commercialisation throughout the academic journey is crucial. If universities prioritise not only the cultivation of technical skills but also entrepreneurial and commercial acumen, and the industry becomes more proactive in its relationships with academic institutions, both sectors will reap the benefits.

The DER-IC network and initiatives, such as the ERS Hub, have been established to support this shift. A more collaborative approach between academia and industry will unlock the full potential of academic innovations and position the nation at the forefront of the global shift towards decarbonised manufacturing practices.

To find out more about how DER-IC is supporting collaboration and innovation in PEMD, contact us at info@der-ic.org.uk