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Hirst Magnetics

Professor Stuart Townley of the ESI (left) and John Dudding of Hirst Magnetics (right). Image by Toby Weller.

Penryn mathematicians help local magnet company attract international markets

New algorithms, developed by Hirst Magnetic Instruments Ltd to enable the characterisation of magnets, are based on calculations from mathematicians from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) at the Penryn Campus.

Founded in 1938, Hirst Magnetics produces a wide range of award-winning specialist magnetic instruments. From its base at Falmouth’s Tregoniggie Industrial Estate, Hirst designs, develops and manufactures magnetic instruments for companies including Baker Hughes, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Delphi.  A market leader in the UK, the business now has a global reputation, particularly in China.

Magnets are used in a huge range of industrial applications, from medical to aerospace to data storage. However, before being put to use, magnets need to be characterised to assess their properties. Whether magnets are being used to help produce a brain scan or generate power from a wind turbine, it is important that their quality has been tested.

Currently the most commonplace technique involves clamping magnets between the steel poles of an electromagnet. The company had a concept of how it might be able to characterise magnets in a new way and had been grappling with the issue for decades before enlisting the help of the ESI. A team of mathematicians from the Institute is now helping to unlock the problem through smart processing of measurement data. With a patent now under way, the business will use the new process to gain an extra edge on international competitors and access new markets.

When it started working with the ESI, the business had to overcome the challenges of describing its concept in a way that made sense to mathematicians. Over time, the ESI team realised that the issue was actually a classic example of what is known in mathematics as an ‘inverse problem’, which involves working backwards to discover the important data behind a result. The mathematicians then spent the next few months working on calculations to finally produce a means of characterising a magnet with absolute accuracy.

John Dudding of Hirst Magnetics said: “For decades, we have had a concept of how we could solve a fundamental problem in magnetics, but we didn’t have the mathematical skills to tackle it. The ESI team has been extraordinarily dedicated and focused and we are now keen to work with them on solving other issues that could benefit the business.

“In measurement, accuracy is the name of the game and we are now in a different league. By working with the ESI team to solve this problem, we expect to maintain our market lead in China and steal a fundamental technical advantage over our competitors.”

Professor Stuart Townley, Chair in Applied Mathematics at the Environment and Sustainability Institute said: “Magnets are used in an almost endless range of products and devices, from medical instruments to data storage to food production. Therefore, the benefits of this collaboration could be far-reaching.

“It was very gratifying to see our knowledge of what was essentially a classical mathematical problem being adapted to something that is of real commercial benefit to a local business.”

Speaking of the collaboration between the ESI and Hirst Magnetics, Professor Kevin J Gaston, Director of the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute said:  “Since its inception, working with local business has been at the heart of the Institute’s vision. Through collaborations like this, we are proud to be giving businesses in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly access to the latest research expertise, helping them gain a competitive edge and grow.”

Date: 28 July 2014