The UK and global research and development communities have made tremendous strides in electronic device prototyping. Platforms that support conventional electronics have become well established, and the emerging potential of printed electronics and related additive technologies is clear. Together these support fast and versatile prototyping of the form and function of digital devices that underpin novel interactive data-driven experiences, including the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable technologies and more. However, challenges remain to realise their full potential. Interactive devices prototyped in labs and makerspaces implement novel capabilities and materials which require holistic manufacturing capability beyond simulation of conventional electronics. To make the transition from prototype to product in order to deliver value, they need to be suitably robust, safe, long-lived, efficient and cost effective. The transition from prototype to production is not a natural one for end users; many ideas with potential don’t progress beyond the first few designs. Democratising access to device production is the key next step in underpinning scalability and entrepreneurship in digital systems.
The Pro2 Network+ involves universities, research organisations and commercial enterprises who share the common goal of improving the transition from prototyping to production of digital devices. The Pro2 community will build on the design and fabrication expertise of its researchers and practitioners to facilitate a deep synthesis of established principles, techniques and technologies and develop new concepts that span computer science, engineering and manufacturing. Work will complement the on-going global investment into a variety of ‘digital manufacturing’ topics – including the UK’s Made Smarter initiative – by tackling the challenge of progressively and cost-effectively transitioning from unconventional and single digital device prototypes, through tens of copies that can verify a design and validate utility, to batch production of hundreds to thousands of units.
Prototyping additive manufacture and printed electronics converge further, in unconventional fields such as soft robotics and 4D printing, hence we need to identify how to integrate and optimise tools into workflows that support digital behaviour across materials, scales and functionalities. In production, smoothing the path from one-off microcontroller prototypes to scale-up is a significant challenge, and requires new processes and tools in addition to reconfiguration of business models and services. Our vision for ‘organic scaling’ from prototype to production will allow faster exploration and exploitation of these digital device concepts and applications. This will accelerate the adoption of IoT, the growth of new consumer electronics markets, and more generally underpin the data-driven digital transformation of many industries. This in turn will enable new research directions, create new business opportunities and drive economic growth.
Project dates: Jan 2023 – December 2027