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Inside Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing with Tim Minshall and Sir Mike Gregory




For the first in a series of pieces looking inside the IfM, we talk to Professor Tim Minshall and Professor Sir Mike Gregory to learn about the purpose and practice of the institute. Look out for three further articles in the coming days.

Professor Tim Minshall, Dr John C Taylor professor of innovation and head of the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Tim Minshall, Dr John C Taylor professor of innovation and head of the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

How do we use manufacturing to improve lives?

That’s the question being answered by the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM).

Part of the Department for Engineering at the University of Cambridge, it is headed up by Professor Tim Minshall.

“What we’re trying to do is to manufacture a better world,” he tells the Cambridge Independent. “The mission of everything you see in this building and every one of our network connections is about that ethos: making things better.

“We take a very broad view of what manufacturing is. It is the whole process from ideas and opportunities, through to products and services.

“We look at how people research ideas, how you develop these ideas into something useful, how you design stuff – be it a product, or service, or a combination of the two – how you actually make things, how you get them to the customer and how the customer uses them, and how that affects everything else.”

The roots of manufacturing education in Cambridge can be traced to the 1950s. At that point, 40 per cent of Britain’s workforce and a third of its national output could be attributed to manufacturing.

It wasn’t until 1966, however, that a pioneering one-year graduate course was initiated, tasking those on it with real-world projects in factories across the country, in between lectures.

More than 50 years on, the name of this course has changed – it is now the MPhil in Industrial Systems, Manufacture and Management – but its principles remain.

“The brilliant idea was ‘hear it, see it, do it’,” says Prof Minshall. “You have to understand it, go and see it in all its glory and then get involved to see the really exciting process of how you create value from doing stuff.”

The dedicated Institute for Manufacturing opened in 1998, the brainchild of Prof Sir Mike Gregory, in Mill Lane, before switching to its current purpose-built home on the West Cambridge campus in 2009.

Professor Sir Mike Gregory, the former head of the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Sir Mike Gregory, the former head of the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Its work combines education, research and practice. Teaching the “innovators of tomorrow”, advising the government of the day, and helping companies improve their processes, the institute’s role remains critical today – even if the percentage of the country’s GDP attributable to manufacturing may have declined.

“The value added by manufacturing is massive,” points out Prof Minshall, who is also the university’s first Dr John C Taylor professor of innovation. “We need people who can do that. The education bit is the bedrock. We have an undergraduate programme, we have the one-year masters programme, we have a PhD programme, we do programmes for companies – small, local ones or multinationals – and we do programmes for government.

“We are also academics, trying to deal with big, real messy problems.

“Most of them are not solved by people sitting quietly on their own doing hard maths. Some are, but most are not!”

True to this principle, the IfM is a bristling hub of technology. Robots eye one another in a factory-style setting. A Cyber-Human Lab is exploring the power of virtual and augmented reality in tandem with exoskeletons. One of the world’s most phenomenal lasers can be found in a photonics centre downstairs. Others are embroiled in nano-manufacturing and fluid research.

Meanwhile, a hackspace enables students to learn with their hands.

Dr Thomas Bohné, head of the Cyber-Human Lab at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Thomas Bohné, head of the Cyber-Human Lab at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Technology, though, is only one facet of improving manufacturing. The institute is also focused on management and policy, collaborating with industry and providing guidance to government.

“The key thing is not just that we do three things but that they are all connected,“ says Prof Minshall

“Our students will go and visit factories, which will very often reveal – as the students will happily tell us – that things have changed.

“We then work with companies to understand the problems, which will improve the way we help people learn, but also help the companies. So we have this lovely synergy.”.

In the corridor at the IfM are some examples of how this works.

Pointing at one of these – an image of an artificial hip implant – Prof Minshall explains: “These metal implants have an outer porous structure that allows the patient’s own bone to grow into it. Its design is incredibly important because you don’t want it to be rejected by the body.

Professor Tim Minshall opens the newly refurbished kitchen at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (20683996)
Professor Tim Minshall opens the newly refurbished kitchen at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (20683996)

“Our colleagues in the laser labs have done amazing things with a company called Stryker to refine the technology. But you can’t put it in the body until it’s been approved and standardised, so there is a whole policy aspect. Then there is the fact that Styrker had to make the decision to build a new factory, so there is a whole business side to it.

“It is a brilliant example of technology, management and policy research combining to deliver a really positive outcome to make lives better.”

The IfM is mindful that innovative approaches to manufacturing need to be achievable for companies of all sizes. This has prompted it to launch a ‘digital manufacturing on a shoestring’ project to bring the benefits of digitisation to smaller companies.

Led by Prof Duncan McFarlane, the project aims to explore whether the needs of a business can be met by bundling consumer devices together.

“It’s about finding the cheapest and most effective way you can do this for real-world firms. We can go to Amazon and buy Go Pro cameras, Raspberry Pi controllers and Alexa. Can we bundle those together for £1,000, rather than spending £50,000?”

The opening of the new kitchen at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
The opening of the new kitchen at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

The IfM’s Education and Consultancy Services (ECS) is focused on transferring research knowledge to industry. It works with companies from start-ups to multinationals, including Rolls-Royce, GSK and Unilever, and helps the government to support innovation.

“Any surplus they generate is donated back to the university to support future research and teaching,” says Prof Minshall.

It is a neat approach, ensuring that the advances achieved today at the IfM will help to support tomorrow’s innovators.

Establishing the IfM: The legacy of Professor Sir Mike Gregory

Professor Sir Mike Gregory outside the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge on the West Cambridge site. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor Sir Mike Gregory outside the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge on the West Cambridge site. Picture: Keith Heppell

Recruited from industry in 1975, Mike Gregory helped to develop Cambridge’s manufacturing courses, and, working with others including Ken Platts, helped to raise awareness in industry of manufacturing strategy.

A workbook on the subject sold 10,000 copies and became something of a blueprint.

“In those days, people had never heard of manufacturing strategy. They did the product design, then ‘threw it over the wall’ into the factory,” says Sir Mike. “The workbook was about developing processes so that people could make manufacturing decisions for their own business in a systematic way.”

Appointed professor of manufacturing in 1994, he was convinced that a dedicated institute was the way forward.

“Having been in industry it was pretty clear that industrial problems don’t sit clearly in disciplines and it didn’t seem to me that we were preparing enough of our bright students for industrial careers,” he says.

“We had some of the education courses, some of the research activities in manufacturing strategies and technologies. Then there was engagement with industry. The idea was to bring them together and create an environment where people from industry would feel welcome.”

The Institute for Manufacturing was born in 1998, and before long outgrew its Mill Lane home.

“It was a grotty site that used to be a brewery, then a University Press building. It was like a dungeon! We had subterranean laboratories and offices. We decided we had to make a move.”

A £15million fundraising campaign brought in major donations from David Sainsbury’s Gatsby Charitable Foundation and Newcastle engineer Alan Reece, whose name adorns the new building at West Cambridge, which opened in 2009.

Sir Mike, a fellow of Churchill College, handed over the reins to Prof Andy Neely in 2015, with Prof Tim Minshall taking over in 2017.

Also in the series

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