Unlocking Innovation: M.A.D.E. for Infrastructure

February 2020

The Railway Industry Association (RIA)’s ‘M.A.D.E. for…’ series called in to the University of Southampton on 20 February for an all-day event on the topic of ‘Infrastructure’. Freelance journalist Ian Hall hears of growing funding possibilities, and innovations galore, but challenges include selecting the most promising projects to benefit.

“We have a lot more money than we have ever had before dedicated to innovation,” said Network Rail’s David Rowe, in one of the day’s opening presentations. Joking that his chief executive, Andrew Haines, was not known for his patience, Rowe said the organisation feels an urgency to “increase the scale and pace” of R&D in rail.

RIA’s ‘M.A.D.E for’ theme stands for Materials, Automation, Data and Energy - these are key areas where the UK rail sector is developing new technologies that could benefit both the domestic rail system and provide the industry with a competitive edge internationally. 
More than 100 participants in Southampton heard about a succession of early-stage projects across these themes throughout a packed day. But what is the best route for people to develop their projects? The overall aim in Southampton was to provide, if not answers, then at least connections across the supply-chain to help organisations to progress their plans. 

The consensus among attendees was that there is growing openness among many organisations to working collaboratively, including cross-fertilisation from beyond the rail sector.

The event took place at the University of Southampton

Unlocking the power of Composites

The day’s ‘Materials’ segment saw presentations from Neil Appleton of the National Composites Centre in Bristol; Tim Edwards of SNC Lavalin/Atkins; James Meredith of Warwick Manufacturing Group; and Jonathan Howard of Dura Composites.

Respectively, the quartet examined topics including: fibre-reinforced polymer composites in rail infrastructure; how composites can bring benefits such as reduced life-cycle costs (even if initial costs are sometimes higher); the city of Coventry’s Very Light Rail project; and the creation of the ‘Unlocking the Power of Composites for Rail Infrastructure Improvements’ steering group (this met for the first time in September 2019). In respect of the Coventry project, Meredith said that he was “interested to hear from anyone with ideas for incorporation”.

The event involved an exhibition of rail products and services

Robots & Artifical Intelligence

Followed a welcome from RIA’s Richard Jones, the event kicked off with Prof David Richards, head of the University of Southampton’s School of Engineering, extolling the university’s new National Infrastructure Lab. The centre (which participants at RIA’s event were able to tour during the day) opened its doors in September 2019, providing researchers and students with state-of-the-art equipment to better design infrastructure that can meet the challenges of the modern world, such as climate change. 

After David Rowe had given an overview of NR’s R&D programme, his colleague Andy Doherty opened the day’s ‘Automation’ segment. Doherty described how ‘intelligent automation’ - including robotics, artificial intelligence to support decisions and additive manufacturing (3D printing) - is changing railway maintenance. Specifics included automated brick tunnel lining repair. Picking up on Rowe’s theme, he said: “We expect to initiate several big innovations over the next 12 months, and we will need your [industry’s] help.” 

Rob Forde and Alan Cooke, both also from NR, gave more specific presentations. Forde described how tech deployment on a 12-week fibre-optic acoustic sensing project in Wales had generated learnings for future larger projects; and Cooke outlined progress with digitised lineside inspection.

TBAT Innovation’s Vincent Seddon then presented on the topic of bid writing and R&D tax credits. He was followed by Innovate UK’s Rhianne Montgomery, who detailed the 2020 ‘First of a Kind’ (FOAK) competition to accelerate innovation in rail (applications close at noon at 11 March 2020). “We are looking for rail challenges,” she said. 


Network Rail Programme Manager Rob Forde sets out the opportunity from their R&D Programme

Energy & Data and the Future

The event’s ‘Energy’ segment saw two speakers: Jay Mehta of ABB Power Grids UK and Freddie van der Linde of AECOM. Mehta focused on static frequency converters, looking at examples from Germany (Deutsche Bahn) and Potteric Carr (near Doncaster). The latter project, a Network Rail first, went live in October 2019. In a presentation on battery storage, AECOM’s Van der Linde described potential energy cost reductions through load-shifting. 

The concluding ‘Data’ segment saw David Shipman of Network Rail present on what he termed the ‘Lifecyle of Data in Rail’, looking at everything from thermal-imaging data through to drone data and the use of 3D headsets to change the way data is viewed. But he warned that with data increasingly available, the challenge is deciding which data is most useful.  

The day’s final two presentations came from Amar Abid-Ali of CSA Catapult, who spoke on ‘Data from Fibre Optic’, looking at how predict-and-prevent maintenance system SpectRail monitors complex railway data including track obstructions and soil saturation levels; and Peter Watson of Ricardo, who spoke on ‘Track Data from Service Trains’. 


Collaboration to Unlock Innovation

The event also saw about 15 three-minute ‘elevator pitches’ from people seeking to boost awareness of their projects/organisations, and make valuable rail industry contacts; and a breakfast roundtable chaired by RIA Technical Director, David Clarke. 

The University of Southampton leads the Centre of Excellence in Infrastructure, alongside the Universities of Loughborough, Nottingham, Sheffield and Heriot-Watt within the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN). UKRRIN is a £92m partnership between industry and academia with the aim of developing innovation in the rail industry. 

RIA’s ‘M.A.D.E. for’-themed events are part of our ‘Unlocking Innovation’ series. The Unlocking Innovation events are supported by NR, whose R&D Portfolio has around 50 Challenge Statements - key areas where they are looking for innovative solutions from industry. Investment in R&D in the industry is at record high levels – with £357m combined funding from NR and industry in infrastructure over the next five years – as well as a number of other sources of innovation funding.


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