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4 February, 2022 - 21:58 By Tony Quested

Blackman & White develops real cutting edge with Essex University alliance

Maldon-based engineering firm Blackman & White has revolutionised its products, pumped up the bottom line and tapped into fresh talent thanks to a partnership with the University of Essex.

The alliance has already brought the business more than £1 million in revenue and added a genuine cutting edge to next-generation technology. The Knowledge Transfer Partnership between the partners has now been rated as “outstanding” by Innovate UK’s national KTP grading panel – the highest grade possible.

Holly Leonard, KTP manager at the university said: “This project was an exemplar KTP and the Outstanding grade we received from Innovate UK reflects this. 

“Like many of the companies we work with, Blackman & White has been able to revolutionise its offering and is seeing considerable commercial benefits through additional sales generated by the KTP work.”
 
Academics from Essex first partnered with Blackman & White on the 30-month KTP project in March 2019 to help the manufacturer of CNC knife, router and laser cutting equipment explore new routes to future-proof its technology.

The family-owned firm turned to the university when it identified the urgent need to transform the motion control software used across the portfolio of Blackman & White machines.

The collaboration sought to reshape how the market perceived cutting machinery, from a standalone piece of equipment to a fully collaborative ‘smart’ production tool. 

This led to the project winning funding from Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency– part of UK Research and Innovation.

Initially, the KTP focused on overhauling and optimising the existing complex firmware underpinning Blackman & White’s product range. As it progressed, data visualisation and machine learning for predictive maintenance became more prominent in the research agenda.

With over 50 years’ trading experience, and as the only UK manufacturer of CNC knife, router and laser cutting equipment, Blackman & White was uniquely placed to innovate and capitalise on the technical enhancements developed through the application of Essex expertise.

Managing director Alex White said: “The KTP with Essex has had a huge impact on our business. We knew we needed to future proof our unique offering and being able to tap into the university knowledge base and gain financial support through the funding from Innovate UK, has meant we’ve been able to do just that.”

Essex academics Dr John Woods and Dr Vishwanathan Mohan, from the School of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, teamed up with KTP Associate Dr David Birch to tackle the multi-faceted project that required expertise across topics including kinematics, firmware design for robotic control, data visualisation and software engineering.

Dr Woods from Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering said: “Essex students have seen huge benefits from the partnership through the work placements and employment opportunities it has generated. 

“And as academics, we have had the opportunity to see our ideas making a difference in the real world – demonstrating that university research can be truly transformative when applied to industrial challenges.”

The completed project has seen the new firmware rolled out to Blackman & White’s existing machinery deployed all over the world – helping to improve efficiency and cut speed, delivering increased accuracy for clients and extending runtime and reliability for operators.

As well as the £1m-plus in revenue generated in sales of the newgen cutting machine a range of other innovations, including an Industry 4.0-equipped dashboard and remote machine monitoring functionality, have been delivered as part of the project.
 
Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering has also seen huge benefits from the KTP with seven undergraduate students delivering final year projects as part of the partnership, and two becoming full-time employees at Blackman & White.

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