Collaboration between universities and British manufacturing is crucial to innovation and the development of processes and products. Colin Chinery looks at some of the variations on offer in a fast-developing landscape.
Back to school
“Obscure” and with academic performance metrics that “don’t generally speak to business demands.” This was CBI directorgeneral Richard Lambert speaking at the University of Bath School Of Management earlier this year. The target of his stricture? The operational relevance to British manufacturing of research output from UK business schools.
Lambert of course is an authoritative voice on the cruciality to the British economy of academiaindustry collaboration. His 2003 Report was a landmark on the issue, and seven years on interaction between universities and manufacturing is impressive and increasingly productive.
And the driving force is the focus Lambert finds missing in much business school-industry interaction – the ‘What’s in it for the manufacturer?’ relevance: Ideas into Application. Among current examples of thriving academia-industry collaboration is a unique £2.28m Vehicle Energy Facility for the Midlands.
When formally launched at the end of the year it will be the only purpose-built hybrid powertrain testing facility in Britain not owned and operated by an individual automotive company. Part of the Birmingham Science City initiative, it will provide the region with a state of the art test and characterisation facility for hybrid vehicle powertrains.
One of six English Science Cities, the BSC is a strong partnership of public, private and research sectors using science, technology and innovation to drive prosperity and quality of life.
“The USP of the Science City collaboration is that although we are the custodians of this equipment in the universities, it is part of the contract that we make this equipment available to local industries, and that we go out and tell them about it,” says Professor Pam Thomas.
Professor Thomas is director of the Science City Research Alliance, a collaborative research programme between the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick, and funded by Advantage West Midlands and the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Wales.
“We don’t wait for them to come to us, and have six business engagement managers on the project to go out and tell industry in a pro-active way what is here, how they can access it. And then we are obliged to make it open to them. It’s often said of university-manufacturing interactions that we don’t work on a fast enough or flexible enough time scale.
Well this is a fast track into using the latest state of the art equipment and technology.” Cultural disparities between academia and manufacturing have been another barrier. But attitudes have moved on, and Professor Richard Dashwood of WMG at the University of Warwick says British industry engaging with universities is no longer an issue. “It’s actually something that works quite well.
The big companies like Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems all have active engagements with universities, and our university has long standing relationships with Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors.
“In the building I’m in at the moment we’ve got the Tata European Technology Centre two floors above me and Corus Automotive Research base on the floor below.
It’s acknowledged that universities have a very important role to play. I think you’ll find that most industries have reduced the amount of corporate research they are doing themselves and are farming this out to universities and leverage so much Government funding.” Lambert, says Professor Mike Gregory, head of the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge, showed that while the willingness of universities to engage with industry had increased dramatically, it is essential to make industry aware of the opportunities. “What has happened since is that universities have become arguably much better at presenting themselves to industry. If I was looking at the developments since Lambert it would be the growth and professionalism of university-industry links.”
Collaboration as a critical impetus for UK manufacturing was a theme emphasised by speakers at the recent National Manufacturing Debate, organised by Cranfield University.
Manufacturers are increasingly recognising the benefits of working with universities like Cranfield to develop their ideas at reduced risk and cost to their organisation.
Universities can provide ready-made environments for testing and researching ideas to ensure they are viable technologies for deployment in the marketplace; businesses gain an insight into current research and future developments.
Within the university sectors there are of course disparities of approach, positioning and delivery.
“The biggest difference here I believe is that we look at a project with an industry as a far more long-term relationship development – I call it a complete package,” says Rajkumar Roy, Professor of Competitive Design and head of the Manufacturing Department at Cranfield University.
“From the outset Cranfield has been working with industry, solving industrial problems and wealth generation. That’s really what our remit is. And in that process, and as a post-graduate university, we research what is necessary to support wealth creation and support industry. So our focus is very much applied research – that is the differentiator.
“For example, when you come in and work with my team I don’t just sell one small individual project. I’ll say ‘let’s sit down and understand what you need. Maybe you don’t need a research project, maybe you need some consultancy or short courses or maybe you just need to train your people up and we can help you with the relevant programme.’ It’s a whole package approach and it works.
“Investment in manufacturing research should focus on excellence. We have to careful not to dilute whatever pot of money we have to everybody and make it very democratic but at the same time very ineffective. So promote excellence, focus on a few key areas and pump money into that to become significant globally.”
For Richard Dashwood, academic director and Professor of Engineering Materials at Warwick, an important feature that differentiates his university from others “is that we believe very much in market pull.”
“A lot of universities sit there and will develop technologies and ideas, and once they’ve developed them will go to industry, tell them what they have done and ask whether they are interested. And of course you can develop a lot of technologies that nobody’s interested in. I call that technology push.
“We tend to engage with industry and the funding bodies very early on in our processes to identify the problems that need solving, look at the potential solutions and then write our research projects around that. So it’s very much a case of early engagement with industry, and market pull over technology push.” The Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) is a division of the Cambridge University Department of Engineering, and Peter Templeton, chief executive officer IfM Education and Consultancy Services, sees two factors distinguishing it from other academic departments working in the field.
“One is that rather than concentrating on a specific, tightly-focussed subject domain, we’ve set out to understand the full life-cycle of manufacturing. This extends from markets and technologies through strategy, product and process, design, production and supply, network design and operation, and on through life service. All this within an economics and policy context. We have about 180 people conducting research across policy, management and technology areas.
“Most universities would approach that very broad subject domain with input from the engineering department, the business school and perhaps economics or government policy specialisms.” And that in itself presents structural and funding challenges which tends to inhibit the multi-disciplinary process taking place, says Templeton.
Loughborough University’s four year sponsored IMechE and IET accredited MEng programme in Innovative Manufacturing Engineering is a unique course developed in collaboration with a consortium of sponsoring companies, including Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and Caterpillar.
High flyers’ route
This is a high flyers route, aimed at ambitious career-minded students with an eye on becoming tomorrow’s manufacturing leaders. A key feature is that each registered student has the opportunity to be sponsored by the consortium for the duration of their studies, followed by a dedicated route to employment after graduation.
The industrial consortium of sponsoring companies plays an active role in the development and delivery of the course, providing lecture material, projects and company visits, and involvement at the interviewing and selection stages.
The core fundamentals, says Jon Petzing, senior lecturer in Metrology at Loughborough’s Wolfson School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering, “Are academic excellence and industrial relevant? How do we achieve that? We make sure the companies are there and the students are seeing them as early as possible, realising why we are doing it, and that it is not an academic exercise. It’s about preparing the new tranche of engineers for the future.” Manufacturing Leadership is the subject of a high quality programme offered by a business school that would pass Richard Lambert’s industry relevant test – Leeds University Business School (LUBS). The Executive Masters in Manufacturing Leadership addresses the needs of manufacturing professionals facing the challenges of fast pace technological progress, and is organised in conjunction with the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Engineering and the Keyworth Institute.
The University is home to one of Britain’s top engineering and computing faculties, the Faculty of Engineering, with an international reputation for teaching and research. And the overall aim of the programme is to equip participants with the knowledge and skills needed to create forward looking, innovative and dynamic manufacturing organisations.
“The MSc has been running since 2007, and this year will be our fourth intake of the course,” says Stephanie Abraham of the University of Leeds.
Originally put together in conjunction with Yorkshire Forward and MAS Yorkshire and Humberside, it is based on a traditional MBA type of education and, says Abraham, would be considered a ‘sector specific MBA’ outside of the UK.
“The course takes people from manufacturing, engineering, technology type organisations and provides them with the theory and means of looking at their own organisation, industry, market and competition. While primarily for organisational benefit, the individual obviously gains a lot on a personal level.”
The challenge for SMEsEffective and accessible
“For example, they might be working as head of operations or on the design and development side or in sales and marketing. This means they have very little time to focus on strategy and capability issues.
Business support tools for SMEs therefore need to be very effective and efficient and accessible.
“The second need we found is to be able to prioritise, and make sure that any support or intervention is aligned with the priorities of business, and this is really important. So we have built up a tool set which effectively helps our practitioners to engage with SMEs in a way where we go in for a very short intervention but have a big impact “The first intervention is with the prioritisation tool. We do a factory tour, talk to people across the business, and in this process identify how the firm competes. Is it on the basis of price, quality, and delivery or on a form of distinctive customer value, for example product or service leadership? “Then we will ask what the relative importance of the business constraints is? Are they constrained by demand, by supply base, by cash, plant and equipment? Then we assess through a structured questionnaire how the capabilities that underpin how they win business are performing.
“One output of this process is how the senior management team sees the priorities. And this will often show that it has a diverse set of views, with perhaps the MD seeing quality being very important and others seeing it as less important. We would then facilitate discussion about communication within the senior management team.”
‘How well is the business doing?’
Continues Templeton, “Another output is the performance of the capabilities; innovation, supply management, demand generation etc, and we can say how well is the business doing in these areas.
Then we plot those elements on a performance importance matrix to identify the high priority areas which are performing less well. This then informs the development of an action plan to improve the business.” For the SME the bottom line impact can be impressive. Last year, for example, IfM collaborated with a specialist supplier in the auto sector, revising its business strategy. The result was a year-onrevenue growth of 3%. “This doesn’t sound a huge increase, but in the context of everyone else declining it was a pretty good performance,” says Templeton.
“Initially they took on five people, and only last week another five. So against the trend of the auto sector they were able to increase employment as well as improving profitability.” At Loughborough, taking part in activities at the undergraduate level is, “Hugely cost-efficient,” says Jon Petzing.
“The notional charge for taking part, covering administration is £500 typically. For this you get engagement with fertile minds and it’s a great way of trying ‘What If?’ scenarios and throwing ideas around.
“We’ve seen many companies benefit hugely from doing this sort of thing. And the further you go through a degree programme the better the students become because their intellectual knowledge grows. Some very chewy problems are tackled and an awful lot of this goes straight back into the company ready for further development.”
Advice for SMEs
“The first thing is to find the right people within a university,” says Dr Roy. “University collaboration is based on individuals and their entrepreneurship.
You must understand that in academia not everyone is keen to work with SMEs – they have enough resources to work with big boys.
“So I would suggest come to a university, meet a few people, find those you like and want to work with. Those who understand and empathise with SME constraints and are personally motivated to work with SMEs. Find the right match and then it will work. And universities should promote academics who are interested in supporting SMEs, go into SME forums, meet people who are positive thinkers, future-thinkers, and in this way develop a network.” It is now very easy and convenient to go on a computer and identify the centres of excellence in the UK, says Professor Dashwood. “Then you need to engage these universities, and not just one. Talk to a number and get the information you need. Universities are very keen to talk to industry. That’s our job and we will always spend an hour or so talking if we feel there’s a potential research activity to come out of it. And companies should not be looking to fund it alone; they should be looking at matched funding at least from one of the many agencies providing it.”
Not only but also
And academia-manufacturing interaction aside, the Cranfield conference speakers identified the growing importance of another area of collaboration: links between smaller organisations and large multinationals. The latter can use the focused skills and technology of smaller organisations, which in turn benefit from the expertise and contacts of the larger business to improve their own offering.
“Elsewhere in Europe we have seen large companies supporting small companies in the neighbourhood,” says Professor Roy. “We need to take our small companies with us, and people like Rolls-Royce are already doing it. They have a strong local programme where they allow some of their facilities to be used by local SMEs.” Universities and manufacturing; manufacturer with manufacturer. In the advice of the novelist E.M. Forster: “Only connect.”