The Virtual Engineering Centre Celebrates 10 Years of Innovation, supporting businesses in Industrial Digitalisation

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For the last 10 years, the Virtual Engineering Centre’s expertise in industrial digitalisation has played a key role in the growth and success of SMEs and large corporations across the Liverpool City Region and beyond.

In 2010, the Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC) launched as a digital impact centre by the University of Liverpool, supported by EU funding with BAE Systems and the National Nuclear Laboratory. The digital engineering facility opened at the nationally recognised Sci-Tech Daresbury campus in the North-West, intending to help businesses across sector accelerate digital transformation, using advanced digital technologies and emerging research to improve and advance their capabilities.

Here, the VEC established their unique sandpit methodology which continues to be utilised by businesses today. This collaborative environment allows leaders and teams to explore innovative digital tools and technologies in a safe, neutral and technology agnostic space – enabling businesses to better understand how the adoption of these technologies can create long term impact, de-risk experimentation of digital tools whilst accessing the VEC’s network of support to provide business solutions.

It wasn’t long before the VEC developed the first digital testbed. In 2012 the VEC provided their expertise in digital engineering to validate autonomous systems software for the aerospace industry through the GAMMA Project in collaboration with Airbus. The team’s activity continued to grow rapidly that year, supporting 40 other manufacturing projects across the North-West. Through robotics and distributed simulation, companies tested physical and virtual entities simultaneously, on a true-to-life scale, allowing realistic and effective testing and evaluation. The VEC’s state of the art visualisation suite enabled companies to use their existing data to virtually interact with their working environments and test product prototypes, becoming more efficient, increasing communication across team’s and reducing valuable costs and time.

The VEC further expanded its expertise into the automotive industry in 2013, supporting Bentley Motors on a collaborative R&D project, STIVE (Simulation Tools for Rapid Innovation in Vehicle Engineering). The VEC welcomed teams from partners at Northern Automotive Alliance (NAA) and Liverpool City Region-based technology SME’s OPTIS Northern Europe and Valuechain to the VEC Sandpit, where state of the art virtual tools were explored for improving solutions, project management and product design within a highly competitive industry.  The project improved communication and processes across business functions through the seamless integration of new digital tools, reducing time to market, strengthened the existing automotive supply chain and enhanced competitive products, globally.

In 2015, the VEC became strategic partners to the STFC’s Hartree Centre and established a base in the University of Liverpool’s School of Engineering, supporting academic’s in the use of virtual testing facilities and tools for commercial application, and supporting students on and off-campus in the development of their digital skills to prepare them for a career in industry.

The VEC was quickly recognised as a hub of expertise in industrial digitalisation and in 2016 were awarded technical lead for the successful ERDF funded, LCR 4.0 Project which supported over 300 manufacturing SMEs across the Liverpool City Region, creating 61 new digital jobs and helped support the development of 88 new products to firm and 57 new products to market, as the project contributed to an overall gross impact of £4.1m to £10.5m in GVA and 125 FTE jobs to the local economy.

Using virtual tools and simulation capabilities originally developed for the automotive industry, the VEC shifted this innovation across sector into healthcare, supporting Alder Hey Children’s Hospital to discover how these digital tools could support pre-operative planning and patient experience. Using CT and MRI scan data, the VEC developed an interactive virtual heart via enhanced 3D visualisations, which surgeons could explore, offering greater insight and de-risking life-changing and complex surgery through reduced operating time and improved communication. This technology can also be used to enhance teaching and medical training. Subsequently, the VEC @ Alder Hey Innovation Hub was born.

In 2017, the VEC’s nuclear capability was also recognised, and they were appointed as technical lead for the BEIS funded Digital Reactor Design programme, collaborating with other key players and expertise within this sector to support future nuclear reactor build, from design through to decommissioning. This project catalysed the Nuclear Virtual Engineering Capability programme – establishing a robust nuclear manufacturing and materials supply chain through enhanced collaborative networks, proving to lower economic costs and improve accuracy, safety and reliability.

2019 saw the VEC team working with Sellafield Ltd who were keen to develop a mixed-reality simulation tool to assist in remote training. This would allow operatives to qualify in a safe environment whilst enabling Sellafield to collect real performance data on those operating on a replica of their equipment, overseeing their response to threats, hazards and spatial controlling. Whilst also aiding better confidence within their workers, this technology has helped Sellafield to train operatives quickly and efficiently, which has saved them £20m in costs. This collaborative project went on to win an NDA safety and innovation award to mark its success.

To date, the VEC has developed a network of over 1,022 contacts across industry including technology providers and universities, allowing us to be involved in over 876 collaborations and delivering impact through over 681 projects across the UK.

Dr Andy Levers, Executive Director of the VEC, said:

“We are thrilled to be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the VEC. It is a great opportunity to reflect on how far the centre has come and all of the hard work and commitment which has enabled the VEC to reach our stature. The team has continued to grow as a result of exciting and innovative projects, bringing further industry knowledge to the already unique set of expertise that has really made a difference to many businesses.

As the Executive Director of the VEC, I am proud that the centre has met its mission in accelerating the adoptions of advanced digital technology to businesses. 

Whilst our tenth year has been a little different than expected with COVID-19, we continue to work with and support some truly inspiring and innovative organisations across the country and we cannot wait to see what the future holds with some very exciting plans in place including the launch of the Digital Innovation Facility in 2021.”

 

John Leake of Sci-Tech Daresbury commented:

“2020 marks not only the 10th anniversary for the VEC which is located at Sci-Tech Daresbury, but we jointly celebrate 10 years of the joint-venture which brought us together with Langtree, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), and Halton Borough Council in further developing our site. The VEC was one of our first tenants and has since supported many campus businesses and SMEs in developing their products, strategies and digital supply chains, assisting the site in being an innovation hub and home to over 150 companies.”

 

The VEC has recently become a founding member of IDEAS (Institution for Digital Engineering and Autonomous Systems) at the same time as the University of Liverpool developments are taking place for the Digital Innovation Facility (DIF) on the Liverpool campus, which will see our team positioned at the centre of the Liverpool City Region.

Furthermore, the VEC has been appointed as lead partner for the ERDF funded LCR4 START Project, supporting Liverpool City Region SMEs develop their business digital strategy. To support this programme, we recently welcomed Industrial Engagement Managers, Adrian Morris and Dan Bradley to our team.

 

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