A more than academic symbiosis

Posted on 5 May 2009 by The Manufacturer

Collaboration between universities and manufacturing is vital to both innovation and development of processes and products. Ruari McCallion finds that both sides are getting better at it.

There was a time when the gap between places of academic learning and the realities of manufacturing industry looked more like a gulf than a mere difference in location. This was, in a way, strange, because several British universities were established either with money from industry or with its support and encouragement. The universities of Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham are three examples. Imperial College, London, was always a science-oriented university. But at some point, something got lost and relations between academe and industry were characterised by misunderstandings and cultural differences that led to frustration on both sides. All the more paradoxical, then, that the UK’s seats of learning looked across the Atlantic with envy at the large bursaries and endowments enjoyed by their American counterparts, riches that come from business and industry.

It was never the case that relations disappeared completely. Penicillin came from academic research, for example. More recently, Nurofen was created at the University of Nottingham, whose graduate and former professor, Sir Peter Mansfield, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003 for his work on magnetic resonance imaging. DNA profiling was invented by Prof Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester. However, while breakthrough discoveries and innovations grab the occasional headline, much more — and, arguably, much more valuable — work goes on in a more routine and ordinary way every day in educational facilities across the country, helping companies to gain, maintain or enhance competitive advantage.

An Open solution
“For us, one of the important things is that we stick to doing what we’re good at doing,” says Paul Jerram, development manager for e2v. Based in Chelmsford, it is one of the world’s leading imaging and optical companies. It has been involved with the Centre for Electronic Imaging at the Open University’s Milton Keynes campus since mid-2008. “The OU people are academics and able to look at things longer term, where our ability is restricted because of commercial pressures. For example, our ability to look longer term at, for example, the physics of imaging under radiation, is limited. The idea of this joint venture is to work on problems like these in an academic environment.” So why go into partnership with the Open University, all of whose undergraduate students are distance learners?

“The OU has a lot of postgraduate students on-site,” Jerram said. ”What we’re part-funding is basic research into image devices and applications thereof. You don’t need undergraduates to do that and it means that the staff don’t have the distractions of teaching, lecturing and so on. OU has a good and growing reputation for research in this area. Its Planetary & Space Science Research Institute is famous for its involvement in the Beagle project. We expect good and growing synergies in this area.”

Jerram emphasises the importance of recognising both side’s strengths and weaknesses. There is also the need for either side to understand the other. An academic research institute is not going to come up with a groundbreaking product in time for the next sales cycle, in six months. From the academic side, the pressures of the commercial world have to be understood. One source revealed several embarrassing details about a project that fell into disaster. The university was confident it could do the job but the first thing they did was go away on holiday, where there was no contact for three months. After two years, the whole thing was abandoned. That kind of experience used to be uncomfortably common; to say they have disappeared completely today would be unrealistic. The important thing is for each side to understand the other, their culture, expectations and ideas of delivery and to clarify everything up front.

Sweet success of commercial tie-ups
There is a growing body of successful examples of partnerships and collaboration around the country. Microsoft’s research centre at Cambridge University is one, Boeing’s involvement with the University of Nottingham is another. The University of Derby has completed a number of projects with Rolls-Royce, including the development of ISS (Intelligent Shell System), an e-learning platform that makes up-todate information on employment legislation available to all staff in an easily accessible format, provides full control over content and enables delivery of specific training. An award-winning project undertaken by one of Derby’s students helped improve the management of maintenance, and shutdown periods in particular. The university has also worked with Heinz, Bosch, JCB, and sweet manufacturer Swizzels Matlow with administering food manufacturing NVQ training for its staff.

“The feedback we have received about outsourced training via the university has been terrific because our staff are able to speak with fellow students from similar industries and bounce ideas off each other,” says Tony Salt, training and development manager at Swizzels Matlow. “In-house training does work to a certain level but it can become costly and can often be difficult to find the right provider.” The ability to oversee the content of the courses is a major attraction. “This gives us confidence that the course material is useful and worthy for our employees and allows me to put my own slant on things so that systems and procedures specific to Swizzels Matlow can be included in the learning programme.”

The University of Manchester partners with The Manufacturing Institute to provide help with lean manufacturing, and the University of Cardiff School of Business Lean Enterprise Institute has been delivering lean training and education for some years. Bristol University is offering postgraduate courses in partnership with Airbus UK, one being on the dynamics of aircraft landing gear and shimmy oscillation. AWE, the nuclear weapons manufacturer, at Aldermaston and the University of Reading offer a studentship on ‘transition effects in an adaptively refined ALE (arbitrary Lagrangian-Eulerian method)’, which may sound esoteric but is rooted in practical need.

Universities all over the UK take part in Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, a formal scheme which involve student placement at partner organisations, whether for business improvement or some specific technical projects (see Arrested development? in TM March 2009). Liverpool University has recently been awarded £3.5 million for its engineering, electrical engineering and electronics, physics and chemistry departments to share research and expertise with industrial and manufacturing partner organisations. It will be used to create a Knowledge Exploitation Laboratory and to fund KTP arrangements. It is one of 12 universities in the UK to have received similar funding from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.

Leeds MSc, Cranfield flying high
The University of Leeds recently launched an Executive Masters in Manufacturing Leadership. “The course is a part executive MSc, it has been written by a number of academics here in Leeds as well as outside the university,” says Stephanie Abraham, business development manager at the Keyworth Insitute at the University of Leeds. It has been created in line with the traditional executive MBA but where the MBA tends to attract candidates from financial services, Leeds’ MSc has been created for people from a technical background or environment. The course is made of 12 modules. The third year is devoted to the production of a business-based dissertation. All the modules were written specifically for this course and cannot be studied anywhere else across the university.

When it comes to university/manufacturing collaboration, possibly the Daddy of them all, and the best known, is Cranfield University in Bedfordshire. Its Technology Park hosts Nissan’s Technical Centre Europe as its best known resident and it will be joined by the Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM) project.

“IVHM monitors the health of aero engines in flight,” says Benny Tjajhono, course director in options on Cranfield’s manufacturing programme. “It provides all the support needed for condition monitoring and can predict when the engine needs maintenance, repair or components changed.” Cranfield also performs a logistical function in supplying the required parts. IVHM is sponsored by Boeing, Rolls-Royce and EEDA (East of England Development Agency) and is the latest of Boeing’s technical centres, with others at Nottingham University and the Advanced Manufacturing and Research Centre at Sheffield University. Cranfield offers an MSc in Manufacturing, which has practical engagement at its core. Forty per cent of the course is classroom-based; 20% is awarded to a commercially-sponsored group project and a further 40% to the student’s thesis, which may also be commercially sponsored.

“Ten specific projects were undertaken last year and there are eight this year,” says Tjajhono. “The focus is very much on industry involvement and exposure — students come here to get that experience.” In 2008, students worked with companies such as Ford, on improving engine machining and assembly lines; Airbus, on zero-carbon manufacturing, ramp-up for the A380 wing, and on a Europe-wide benchmarking exercise; Jaguar Land Rover, on concurrent engineering across multi-functional departments; DSGi, better known as Dixons, on warehouse management; and Hallmark — the greetings card company — on optimisation of the order planning process.

Wales’ Technium and beyond
Universities across the country have established science parks, incubation units and other means of spinning out commercial embodiments of research success. In Wales, the Technium network fulfils that function and also works with established industries on innovation. The Performance Engineering Centre in Swansea works with both new companies and larger, established clients, and hosts Connaught Engineering, which retrofits hybrid units to petrol and diesel engines to reduce CO2 emissions and make fuel savings, among other companies. Technium@Sony is unusual, because it is hosted by a commercial organisation. The Caparo Innovation Centre, established as a joint venture with the University of Wolverhampton, helps small inventors and innovative companies to develop ideas through design and marketing into full business plans. It filters out the more crackpot schemes through a sophisticated system that includes assessing whether the IP (intellectual property) is patentable; the ease of manufacture; competition in the marketplace; cost of manufacture; how much capital is required and time to market.

The academic and manufacturing partnerships in this article and the accompanying table are far from being an exhaustive list or analysis. The message is, there is plenty going on in this field. That is a very good sign: 10 years ago such an article could have covered most of the existing university/manufacturing collaboration to a reasonable depth. The universities have grown to appreciate the commercial value of their research, and to realise that it’s unusual for anything to make millions overnight for the academics who invented it. Industry increasingly appreciates the value of the assistance universities can provide. The key, as Jerram at e2v says, is to understand each stakeholder’s strengths and weaknesses and to work with them. As the co-operation grows, it strengthens the UK’s manufacturing base and ensures competitiveness. If it did not, the UK would not have so many students from China, India, South-East Asia and the Middle East coming to study here.

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