Grants for equipment to enable innovation in small businesses in York, North Yorkshire and East Riding

Taking a risk to turn idea into reality

Labman Automation Ltd is a custom laboratory automation company based in Stokesley, North Yorkshire. They have been operating as a limited company for 25 years, and specialise in working with universities and industrial partners on systems for research and development projects, with a huge variety of applications. “Just think of everything you do every day,” says Senior Project Leader Andy Brown, “we’ve probably built a robot for it.”

At Labman’s heart is a motivation to push boundaries, gain know-how and find creative solutions to problems. The place itself is bursting with fun and creativity, from the building’s porthole windows and tree trunk table legs, to the climbing wall and squash courts for staff use. Engineers are hard at work on countless pieces of intricate machinery, and such is the buzz of the different projects being developed that Andy says he never leaves work on time: “You get to walk around every day and look at the different robots as you leave and you’ll never leave on time because you’ll be interested by other bits of design and other bits of technology on the way out.”

University of Liverpool’s Formulation Engine under construction

They are currently working on a formulation engine for the University of Liverpool, a flagship piece of automation to allow people to develop processes on equipment that they would otherwise not have access to, across a variety of industrial sectors.

The particular project that the PAPI grant is supporting is finding yet another creative solution. Along with some of their industrial partners, Labman acknowledged the problem of applying viscous materials onto different surfaces in a controlled manner on a small scale. Because of the nature of the products and substrates being used, this process is incredibly difficult, and similar testing would previously have been done by hand. The project aims to analyse the process and make it as accurate and repeatable as possible. Andy Brown and Nathan Churchill are working on this project together, “doing what Labman do – making the little bits do something for a greater good,” says Andy.

Without funding, however, these bright ideas would remain a dream. Andy highlights the basic need for finance facing most companies involved in product development: “We don’t have the ability to develop something without having a purchase order from someone, which suddenly means that someone’s going to invest in us to do something that’s never been done before, and they don’t know whether it’s going to work.”

Invested robot arm for thin film application to substrates

This is where the PAPI project came in, providing an initial input of funds to lower the financial risk of the project. Using basic problem-solving methodology, the team at Labman found four potential concepts and built a miniature rig to find out which methods were feasible to take forward. They looked at the manual tasks involved and how these could be automated, aiming to replicate the manual method as closely as possible while eliminating associated problems. They started off with prototypes from existing kit to isolate the techniques to be used in the project, and after discussion with their industrial partners, the specification was narrowed down even further.

The PAPI grant has enabled Labman to purchase a specialist industrial robotic arm, control computer and actuators, laser profilometer and force measurement device. They have a testing plan for the equipment to be put into place in the coming months, and are already looking at other systems based on this technology in the future.

At the beginning of the project, Andy explains, “we didn’t have the resource to be able to commit internal people to be able to develop it”. However, as a result of PAPI funding towards the equipment, Labman have hired Nathan as a project engineer, and several new staff are expected to be employed to deliver future systems as a result of this project.

labman4

Reflecting on their experience of the grant process, Andy says they really appreciated PAPI’s help with procuring the necessary equipment. The application forms were well aligned with Labman’s internal business processes, and in fact “the hardest bit was driving to York to get things signed off, which was really easy!”

“Having the ability to be able to do the project in the first place has been what we’ve really benefitted from, because otherwise we’d still be at the drawing board.”

Could a grant from PAPI help your business?

The PAPI project provides grants for equipment that enables innovation through to new product development. A grant of 40% is available on a project spend of between £20k-£50k which equates to a grant of between £8k-£20k. For further information please visit the website www.papi.org.uk or contact the PAPI team on 01904 32 8077 or [email protected]