Taking AME

Dr Carl Perrin, Director of The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering, talks to James Pozzi about how the project aims to bring a new dimension to training the next generation to aid the UK’s high value manufacturing future.

Driving into Unipart Manufacturing’s Coventry site, the home of the £32m Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), immediately conjures up both the old and the new. The newly opened AME building lies adjacent to Unipart’s exhaust and fuel systems production factory, and has a remit to firmly focus on the future.

Dubbed the UK’s first faculty on the factory floor, the AME is the brainchild of Coventry University and manufacturing giant Unipart, which provided £17.9m in funding towards the project. With additional support from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, it is to take in up to 40 undergraduates and post-graduates in its first year.

This extends across all levels of university education, giving students access to a real life factory floor environment with new robotics, machine tools, metrology equipment and software including simulation tools and computer modelling.

Overseeing all of this is Dr Carl Perrin, a 20-year industry veteran whose extensive CV includes a seven year spell as head of technology at Rolls-Royce’s coatings division in Annesley, Nottinghamshire. But while academic-industry collaborations are becoming ever more common, Dr Perrin believes the AME stands out because of its focus on combining all the elements of a traditional engineering degree while working on actual
applicable, industry ready projects.

“The thing that’s really different is we’re bringing the education platform to the manufacturing site,” Perrin says. “There’s a lot of programmes around that have industrial involvement, but here, students will arrive as part of their engineering degree but come to this site to work in the institute and on this manufacturing site.”

Ready-made engineers

Groundbreaking-L
Breaking ground: (l-r) John Latham (Coventry University). Carol Burke (Unipart Manufacturing Group) and Carl Perrin (Director AME)

The aim of this? To ensure graduates are not only sufficiently skilled, but also ready made for the workplace environment. “Effectively, the sort of things the students will be doing are what they might do after they graduate and go into a first job, so it makes them more employable and gives them experience to take into their careers,” he adds. “It’s not going to fix the skills gap problem but it’s definitely a solution for creating graduates who are ready made for the work place.”

Given the skills shortage, perhaps best personified by the Engineering Council figure of 100,000 engineers needed annually to meet demand by 2020, the AME could prove a forbearer of the UK’s industrial future. The country is already seeing industry and academic collaboration increase in projects such as University Technical Colleges, alongside other industry-academic collaborations such as Jaguar Land Rover and Warwick Manufacturing Group.

Dr Perrin believes while there are engineering graduates, it is often the case that they may not have had the rounded experience at education level needed for the modern manufacturing environment. This extends to other areas such as dealing with company financial departments.

But can the UK sustain a high value manufacturing future by utilising academic bodies? When posed with this question, Dr Perrin acknowledges his privileged position on the subject from his Rolls-Royce days. “My last job in coatings at Rolls-Royce involved developing new coatings to keep pace with the engine development in terms of emissions and fuel economy. It was a demanding environment and coatings were fundamental to the components in the engine working, and this naturally created a need to continuously develop and innovate,” he explains.

Dr Perrin’s best and worst career moments.

Best: I led a project in Dana Glacier Vandervell over a six year period to introduce a new technology from blue sky concept to volume production with a major OEM. The personal pride came from seeing the end product in production, with vehicles on the road with my technology in them. Following this, I managed a team of engineers manufacturing coatings for Rolls-Royce turbine blades, and implemented a fully integrated approach to design and manufacturing, which resulted in a flawless launch for several new coatings introduced in the latest generation of Trent engines.

Worst: Ironically, both of these projects came with significant personal lows for me, in both cases with technical problems that seemed impossible to resolve at the time. However, looking back on the way I managed out of these situations by involving the right people and thinking different, really set the defining points in what led to the overall success.

He believes Rolls-Royce’s strong links to academic institutions was testament to the benefits of collaboration. “I saw first-hand that universities are a really important part of the whole process and it took long term investment and commitment to really get the value out of it.”

Elaborating on this, Dr Perrin explains: “They [universities] would develop the concepts, while also having the head room to go to conferences, look at academic papers and come up with solutions and test them out in industry as well. The relationship worked there very well in terms of them being able to present us with concepts, test these out and take it up to a certain level where we could even have prototypes running into engines.”

Future opportunities

With the AME in its early days having only welcomed its first influx of students in September, the project pipeline is already impressive. Three projects were signed and sealed before the institute even opened, with the most prominent to date being a £750,000 Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) ‘Towards Zero Prototyping’ project.

It aims to develop novel modelling and simulation techniques to help designers and manufacturers reduce the need for physical prototypes. Further projects are also on the horizon over the coming months. While this could already be described as a great success, Dr Perrin remains pragmatic as he talks of taking things forward in a controlled way.

“At the moment, I’m happy we’re submitting bids in a controlled way and we’ve got the right projects being identified with the right partners, but we’ve got to do more by looking at other product areas,” he explains. These areas include other sectors which Unipart already has a foothold in. “Unipart has also got a strong rail  business, so there’s future opportunities within that area, and also oil & gas,” he says.

“We are looking at getting into other sectors, some of which are already part of Unipart’s business with opportunities to grow, but others which are potentially new areas we can go into and evaluate through the institute. But we need to focus on the objectives we will definitely be measured on, and make sure we don’t get distracted from those. But we also can’t miss opportunities to grow further and do things outside of this to make it a viable entity.”

Despite the measured approach when quizzed on targets, Dr Perrin remains equally as pragmatic when asked what his long term grand vision for the centre will be. But there is one key theme underlining everything: one of collaboration. The scheme will ultimately be measured through two factors: how many graduates go into engineering jobs, and additional roles created through research carried out at the institute.

But Dr Perrin, who says there is no obligation for any students to work for Unipart Manufacturing post-AME, says the plan is to extend its reach beyond just the university and its industrial partner. “This institute is not just about Coventry University and Unipart; we want other businesses to get involved – and they are doing so – initially within the company supply chain,” he explains.  “From an education point of view, success from the university perspective has got to be businesses from all sectors approaching us and asking who we have coming through that year that might suit them.”