Companies want industry-ready engineering graduates who can contribute quickly to their business. Judith Shawcross discusses the approach developed by the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering.
Newly recruited staff who can hit the ground running are particularly important for smaller and medium-sized businesses because it is often impractical to provide specific structured training and development programmes.
Two key aspects of developing industry readiness are preparing graduates to solve real, rather than academic problems, and giving them experience of a range of industrial working environments.
Here at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), part of the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University, doing real projects in companies has been part of our student offering for more than 50 years.
Undertaking multiple projects based in different companies has been found to be successful in developing students’ skills, experience and confidence, and for the host companies, projects have often delivered value in terms of new insights or proposals.
Solving real problems
There are many differences between academic problems and practical workplace problems.
Academic problems are generally well formulated, come with all the necessary data and have one right answer. In the workplace, however, problems are typically messy, have incomplete or conflicting data as well as multiple potential answers.
These real-world problems require different skills, such as framing the problem, generating a range of potential solutions and being able to systematically evaluate which solution is the best fit for the situation, taking into account financial, resource as well as engineering considerations.
Making tea in a kitchen requires a completely different skill set to the skills required for making tea in a forest where, among other things, you may need to build and light a fire.
In a university environment we have been able to simulate some aspects of solving real problems while working in teams, including group exercises solving problems related to factory layouts and locations, as well as improving assembly and operational efficiency.
However, doing this in a real company setting, interacting with a range of people and having to deliver useful insights in a short time frame enables more skills to be developed related to working with other people, making sense of an unfamiliar situation, thinking from different stakeholder perspectives and working out how to analyse real data to generate evidence-based insights.
Students on the Institute for Manufacturing’s Industrial Systems, Manufacture and Management (ISMM) Master’s programme take part in four industry projects throughout their course, giving them the opportunity to develop new skills and confidence in an industrial context.
In a typical year, the ISMM team coordinate around 80 projects with companies that vary considerably in terms of size and the sectors they operate in. Projects are also part of the IfM’s undergraduate programme.
Mentoring students through projects
A tutor from the IfM guides a company through the process of setting up and selecting a problem area that is suitable for a two-week project. They then help to write a project brief which provides a start point for the students.
The same tutor will mentor the students, meeting them before and during the project, including attending a presentation to the company on their findings, usually on the last day of the project.
Shortly after the end of the project, the students complete a report, and after this has been assessed and checked by the tutors, it is passed on to the company along with any appropriate files.
Companies support the students by providing a supervisor who can meet them regularly, a suitable work location and giving them access to the necessary data and resources. The company supervisor is key to briefing the students initially, signposting them to different sources of information, discussing progress and validating the ideas they are developing to see if they are appropriate before being presented to senior managers on the final day.
What can students do in two weeks?
Free from the day-to-day responsibilities of regular employees, they are able to focus solely on the project. They come with fresh perspectives, are able to analyse data to generate new evidence-based insights and can make suggestions unconstrained by company history or culture.
To explore opportunities to engage with the Institute for Manufacturing, including student projects, SME membership, training and more, please visit the IfM website.
Case study: Developing students’ skills at Titan Motorsport
Titan Motorsport specialises in the design and manufacture of steering, suspension and engine components for use in the motorsport and high-performance automotive industry.
Based in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, it has a product development centre as well as a large manufacturing facility, employing more than 80 people, and supplies whole-vehicle OEMs and distributors, as well as end users.
It has been offering industrial projects to ISMM students for the past four years. George Lendrum, managing director of Titan, offers his experience of ISMM projects and the impact the students have had on the business.
Why did Titan start offering industry projects to students?
We heard about the projects and thought they would be a great way to offer students experience of working in an interesting industry.
The IfM is an organisation I had links with through the university, and I knew of the quality of their research and educational programmes.
By offering projects through the IfM, we were confident the students would be able to work on problems that were challenging for Titan and provide actionable solutions that would add value to our business.
What projects have students done in the past?
We’ve had students work on nine projects so far, focussing on both marketing and manufacturing challenges. Examples of specific projects include the evaluation of whether a new product range was viable, the rationalisation of stock quantity for one of our biggest clients, and more recently, a review of our factory layout. They are often quite challenging problems that are of strategic importance to our business.
Tell us a bit about the most recent project
The last project came at quite a convenient time. We were going to undertake some building work in the factory, which would result in a new layout for the shop floor and stores area. We were also looking to introduce a new automotive quality standard to some of our products, because the standards are important to our clients. (These were in addition to the ISO9001 2015 standards our products already meet.)
Before starting the project, we were under the impression that we would need a separate physical location for the workshop to meet this new quality standard. Hence, it would be necessary to segregate work depending on the standard we were working towards.
The project looked at the shop floor layout in the context of the new building work and also the new quality standards we wanted to introduce. We have around 30 CNC machines and a number of manual machines – we did have some preconceived ideas about the new layout but we didn’t have any detailed plans.
What did the students deliver?
Toby and Marian came in for just over two weeks. They quickly met all the relevant employees so they knew who they needed to speak to if they wanted information on a specific topic or area. They were also able to speak to a couple of our clients to get an understanding of the new quality standards and why they were important.
The project was presented back to us at the end of the two weeks and it took us by surprise. The insights they provided clearly showed that we didn’t need a physical separation on the shop floor to account for the new quality standards.
They proposed a different layout to the one we envisaged. The new layout fitted in with the building work we wanted to do and also the vision we had for the business.
The project will save us some money in the future because we don’t have to put up as many physical walls as we anticipated and we now have detailed plans on the factory layout and locations of machinery.
We are going to implement their solution rather than our initial plan, so they obviously persuaded us that they were right!
What would you recommend to businesses looking to do a student project?
Find a problem that’s of importance to your business and put a bit of time into creating the brief, but don’t give the students too many parameters. It’s important the students explore the problem and work out some of the detail themselves so that they can come up with their own possible solutions.
By doing this, the students experience what workplace problems are like – that there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ answer, but you can work to fill in the gaps and find solutions that offer the most value to the business.
Would you recommend student projects to other organisations?
Definitely – they are a great way for students to get exposure to the workplace and, as a business, you get practical insights that add value to the business.
Judith Shawcross is part of the Manufacturing Industry Education Research Group (MIERG) at the Institute for Manufacturing, part of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering.
The group undertake research across a wide range of themes relating to educational issues that affect the manufacturing industry.
To find out more about the MIERG, click here.