Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Manufacturing and the circular economy theme

The Manufacturing and the circular economy theme has merged two previous teams (Manufacturing the future and the Circular economy themes).

It invests in manufacturing research, drawing on emerging opportunities from across the engineering, physical, biological and mathematical sciences.

The investment also aims to support and drive research and innovation relevant to the transition to a circular economy across the council’s remit.

Partners involved:
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The scope and what we're doing

The Manufacturing and the Circular Economy theme at EPSRC invest in high-quality research to support a sustainable, resilient, thriving and productive future for the UK-wide manufacturing sector and a truly circular economy.

To enable this, our mission is to work in partnership with stakeholders across and beyond UKRI to:

  • support high-impact, interdisciplinary research that is co-created with users and broader stakeholders
  • actively manage an environmentally sustainable portfolio to accelerate translation and implementation of fundamental research to deliver real-world impacts (economic, social and environmental), enhancing the UK manufacturing base and realising a more circular economy
  • embed consideration of and design for manufacturing and the circular economy, in research and training across the EPS landscape and throughout the research and innovation lifecycle

EPSRC manufacturing research spans:

  • underpinning science
  • simulation and design
  • production
  • fabrication
  • systems and services in manufacturing

This research helps to drive the innovation in high-value manufacturing that is necessary for a competitive manufacturing sector.

The circular economy is crucial to achieving net zero carbon emission targets, as well as reducing waste and pollution harmful to biodiversity, and enhancing resource security. It supports:

  • reducing consumption
  • keeping resources in use for as long as possible
  • extracting the maximum value from them while in use
  • recovering products, materials and feedstocks after use

Achieving the promise of a more circular economy requires research and innovation across the engineering and physical sciences landscape.

Key engagement activities

We regularly engage with the Manufacturing and the Circular Economy Strategic Advisory Team to support the development and implementation of strategic activities. They provide timely thematic advice, drawing on a range of perspectives from across our remit. The team members include a range of stakeholders within the research and innovation community.

The Early career forum in manufacturing research has been active since 2012 with refreshes of membership occurring every 18 months. Forum members have a strong focus on advancing the UK’s international reputation in manufacturing research, are open to developing interdisciplinary research agendas, and have an interest in participating in research policy development.

Related research priorities

Support for world-leading, high-impact manufacturing and circular economy research across and beyond the remit of EPSRC is essential to deliver on national and global priorities.

In the near term we have identified five more targeted research priorities and two which apply across a broader portfolio for the area. These priority areas will evolve as the national context and research landscape change.

They do not encompass everything we will support in the area, but detail near-term priorities we’ll be looking to drive forwards through targeted activities and which applicants should consider when developing applications.

Manufacture the next generation

We need to find new ways to manufacture the next generation: things we do not yet know how to make but will be vital to future technologies, and more sustainable, resilient and productive ways to manufacture those we already do. We need to drive forward truly innovative manufacturing keeping the UK at the forefront of the area.

Advancing recycling capability

Recognising that recycling is not the first choice in a circular economy, we need research into advancing recycling capability, from enabling technologies like product passports to sorting and new recycling technologies. We want to support new technologies and improve existing ones, making them more sustainable and more economic.

Materials for a sustainable future

We want to support materials for a sustainable future through the development of more sustainable materials and more sustainable methods of manufacture. We aim to embed sustainability and circular economy considerations throughout the materials lifecycle from design to manufacture and into use.

Realising the transformational impact of digital technologies

This research priority is essential to accelerate the uptake of state-of-the-art digital technologies, to advance manufacturing and enable a circular economy. The potential benefits are significant, from the utilisation of data to underpin a circular economy, the automation of manufacturing to increase productivity, through to the use of modelling to accelerate and reduce the cost of development.

With effective consideration of the environmental impacts of more digital or data-driven approaches, we aim to accelerate the translation of digital technologies to realise their transformative potential .

Maximising value from existing resources and systems

This is an important and often overlooked aspect of the circular economy. We want to support innovative technologies focusing on:

  • extending the life of existing structures, products, components and materials
  • prioritising reuse and remanufacturing over recycling at the end of first life

This will significantly reduce the environmental impact and increase the sustainability of the associated systems.

Embed design for sustainability and drive a systems approach

The need for these two priorities is embedded across the whole research portfolio.

To truly realise a sustainable future and a circular economy, the principles of sustainability (social, environmental and economic) must be embedded through design from the very start of the innovation process.

Products, processes and systems need to be designed to be low carbon and low pollution in use and manufacture, to be durable and repairable, and at the end of a long life to enable recovery and recycling.

Alongside this we need to consider the social impacts of the research. Where possible researchers should go further and use regenerative design with minimal environmental impact, to create products which repair the damage done to the planet.

A whole systems approach encourages solutions and innovations with greater impact, while minimising and mitigating unintended consequences.

It is a discovery process combining quantitative and qualitative approaches to understand and manage technological systems while considering broader economic, environmental, social, political and behavioural factors, at the same time taking into account complex interactions.

Cross-cutting principles

To deliver the long-term impact we want for the portfolio, EPSRC also aims to follow the following cross-cutting principles throughout the portfolio:

  • driving active engagement with stakeholders
  • interdisciplinary co-creation
  • developing people
  • embedding environmental sustainability

Why we're doing it

We are investing in excellent manufacturing and circular economy research to foster a research community with the appropriate skills and leadership to support the challenges faced by the UK in the future.

We work in partnership with businesses and broader stakeholders to shape the research we support, addressing the serious challenges they face to accelerate the impact of our investments.

EPSRC wants to support research and innovation directly addressing these challenges, but also support researchers across the portfolio to consider sustainability, manufacturing and the circular economy more broadly in their proposals.

Supporting national and global priorities requires the growth of a healthy manufacturing and circular economy research community, alongside strategically targeted interventions in key areas to accelerate a transition to a more productive, resilient and sustainable UK.

Manufacturing and the circular economy research and innovation is essential to delivering solutions to the biggest societal drivers, from net zero to levelling up and improving health.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Funding opportunities

You can apply for funding to support an EPSRC research proposal in manufacturing and the circular economy at any time under any open EPSRC scheme, including standard mode, programme grants and fellowships.

Standard (sometimes known as ‘responsive’) funding opportunities are open to a wide range of research and approaches within EPSRC’s remit. In line with council remit, we will support interdisciplinary proposals, but the majority of the research must be within engineering and the physical sciences.

For current open opportunities please check the UKRI funding finder.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Manufacturing Hubs

Each Manufacturing Hub has a programme of innovative research in the engineering and physical sciences, related to the challenges in commercialising early stage research. The core hub activity is based in a single location, with other institutions or groups acting as ‘spokes’, inputting specific expertise in particular areas complementary to the lead institution.

A key characteristic of the hub model is that the research is driven by the long-term research challenges of users. User collaboration is therefore an essential aspect for these hubs.

See information on the active funded Hub awards.

Find out more about the impact of EPSRC funding in the Manufacturing Hubs.

National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research

EPSRC leads the delivery of the £30 million National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research programme under the Strategic Priorities Fund on behalf of UKRI, working with AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC, Innovate UK, NERC and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The programme supports a Circular Economy coordination hub and five research centres, as well as providing collaborative research and development funding through two calls led by Innovate UK.

Find out more about the impact of EPSRC funding on the circular economy.

Recent activities

Research for a digitally enabled circular economy and sustainable digital technologies: a funding scheme for collaborative research that contributes to the development of a digitally enabled circular economy and more sustainable digital technologies.

Adventurous manufacturing: a funding opportunity for exceptional and potentially transformative science and engineering research projects that contribute to our vision for manufacturing research

Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with EPSRC portfolio and data relationships. Find out more about research theme connections and funding for Manufacturing and the Circular Economy on VoP.

Find previously funded projects in the energy and decarbonisation theme on Grants on the Web.

Who to contact

Ask a question about this area of investment

For further information, contact the Manufacturing and the Circular Economy team:

Ask a question about delivery support and peer review support

Last updated: 11 April 2024

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