The Institute for Manufacturing takes a holistic approach to manufacturing, linking communities in academia, industry and government to cutting edge research with real-world relevance. Head of the Institute Professor Mike Gregory wants it to become a global hub for disseminating a better understanding of global manufacturing that helps companies to work more efficiently. Will Stirling reports.
The brand new Alan Reece Building, a modern 4,400m2, £15m office building on the university’s West Cambridge campus for science and technology, seems like the ideal place for great minds to test groundbreaking ideas and devise the next 3D printing technique or bagless vaccum cleaner. It’s big, very modern, very low carbon, but also – extremely quiet. Where is the clamour of metal bashing that one expects in a manufacturing institute? It is July and most of the students are away. But this is a university that embraces 21st century manufacturing, where policy, economics, technology management and sustainability are taught alongside – not in place of – milling and arc welding.
The Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), a division of the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, was established in 1998 to provide a collaborative environment for the creation and transfer of new ideas and approaches to modern industrial practice.
While IfM benefits from Cambridge University’s excellent academic standards, it is most remarkable in its core objective. IfM has a holistic view of manufacturing, where research and industry are very closely entwined. This in itself is not unique — many very good universities, in the UK and worldwide, collaborate very closely with the private sector. But IfM is unique in its purpose to bring together engineering, management and policy, with education, research and practice to drive the understanding of manufacturing in the global economy. “First of all, we educate generations of able students to be enthusiastic about modern manufacturing and to get stuck in,” says Professor Mike Gregory, head of the Institute. “Then, to do research that crosses boundaries; you can do research here in hard technologies but also on how best to understand the role of manufacturing in economies. And thirdly to engage more with our friends in industry helping where we can and of course learning because a lot of the innovations made in manufacturing are made in businesses not in university laboratories.”
This place is largely about putting manufacturing into a globalised context. For example, identifying companies’ strengths and weaknesses and where they fit in global value chains, providing scientific research to the private sector so they can compete and lead in, not merely keep pace with, global markets, and advising on manufacturing policy of overseas governments. There is of course a commercial element, but there is that unmistakable sense here of a place driven by people who are enthused by their subject and are desperately eager to share and further their own knowledge unconditionally.
“Universities are traditionally divided up along disciplinary lines, which makes perfectly good sense if you want to go deep into particular topics,” Gregory says. “But industry is much broader than that — and people running many manufacturing businesses have to cover a whole range of topics from technology, through to managing the business through to understanding the role of government policy on how they operate.”
How did we get here?
Gregory, an affable, good-humoured man who is very articulate on his subject, with that twinkle of fierce intelligence behind a broad smile, clearly understands manufacturing’s big picture. He should do. He used to have a real job — his own words — in industry, in a series of engineering jobs at Webster & Bennett Machine Tools, Coventry, before returning to Cambridge as a tutor in 1975 and moving on through a distinguished academic career.
“What got me really interested in research was not so much very technical research but when I was in a company I thought ‘how do we make the right decisions about how to run our manufacturing, and what we manufacture?’,” he says. “Yes the individual machines matter, but surely it’s about how we join them together, how we manage the people, how we run the business for our customers. At that time there wasn’t very much research in that area and the research was divided up; it was concentrated in metal cutting, or operations management, or economic policy but very little that crossed all the boundaries. So we started by trying to develop new and more comprehensive ways of developing manufacturing strategies.”
Once he understood where the new products and technologies were going to come from, it evolved into thinking about technology management. “Then it becomes obvious that people are no longer doing things in one business, in one factory, in one country and that then evolved into how we understand global networks of factories and supply.”
Prime areas of research
Sustainability, service as a product and emerging industries
There are three main areas which are currently particularly strong at IfM. Gregory stresses that the holistic understanding of manufacturing is a key reason for their development. “These areas build on our fortunate position of having people who really understand engineering and the hard technology production processes but also the management and policy”.
Sustainability is one. “How do we deploy what we know about manufacturing to make things with fewer resources, less energy in a way that is genuinely sustainable? Although there has been a great deal of conversation about climate change and having infrastructure development that is much more environmentally friendly, understanding how to apply these principles of manufacturing to make this sustainable industries is still in its infancy — so there’s a lot to do there. And to provide opportunities to inspire young people who see this as a really serious challenge.” It is an appropriate pillar for IfM, as the building we’re sitting in has a 5-star BREEAM environmental rating, heated by a biomass boiler and uses a large proportion of natural building materials.
Service and support is the second area of strong activity. That might sound surprising for an Institute of Manufacturing, but IfM prescribes to the broad definition of manufacturing. “That is understanding markets, design, production, distribution, service and reuse or recycling,” says Gregory. “Service is an integral part of that broader definition and big engineering companies now have a very aggressive service model in the way they do business — Rolls-Royce of course everyone’s knows about — but smaller companies are moving very rapidly to understand how to sell their business as a service rather than just the product. We’re working with a number of companies to help them, and ourselves, to understand that migration.”
The third area is emerging industries. IfM set up the Emerging Industries Programme in 2008 to try to convert real wealth-creation from merely good ideas. “One of the classic problems we’ve faced in the UK is how to translate our science and technology, which is reasonably good, into wealth-creating industries. And so we’ve set up our this programme, with support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, to try and bring together the separate bits of expertise that go together to create an industry; from the basic research and understanding the research interfaces, through to how do we design products using this technology, through to how do we build the supply chains for this kind of product, through to what kind of business model are we going to use to realise that idea. EIP is about joining those things together. We hope that we can accelerate this process from the ideas into wealth-creating industries.”
Identifying your link in the chain
As a member of the Ministerial Advisory Group for manufacturing that advises government on industrial strategy, he made several key recommendations for government’s last Manufacturing Strategy, New Challenges, New Opportunities (see page 24) in September 2008. One of these was to develop a method to promote the understanding of global value chains.
Government is keen for UK companies to identify their place in global value chains — where they best sit in the design, development, production and distribution of end products that have global supply chains. This is a core part of IfM’s work, and there are two parts to this: “Our industry links unit works with a lot of companies in the UK to help them understand their strengths and weaknesses,” Gregory says. “I suppose we’re all the same; we do our job, we ‘stick to our knitting’ and do not always reflect on the breadth of things we have learnt to do. IfM likes to work with companies who think, for example, they’re terribly good at making a particular product, but it turns out they have other values to offer. One company who make audio equipment I have in mind had marvellous production facilities but it turned out the thing their customers most valued was their customer support and their excellent dealer network. If you extend that, you really want to know what you’re good at but also where are the opportunities to deploy that capability. That means having some understanding of the requirements in the markets where you’re seeking to work.”
This links to the work UK Trade and Investment is doing to try to understand the supply networks, particularly in India and China at the moment, and bring knowledge of that back into the UK so that companies, once they’ve understood what their strengths are, can see how best to apply them. “I actually think this is very exciting. It’s actually much easier now for small companies to operate globally than it would have been say 20 years ago.”
How can my company benefit from IfM’s work?
I was keen to know how IfM benefits UK manufacturers directly, on a one-on-one basis. This prompted the professor to emphasise its global reach – IfM doesn’t work exclusively with UK companies. “We actually think it’s more beneficial to UK companies if we have a broader view and we know what is going on around the world. Not least because the way that industry works today is not having one great big factory in Birmingham or Sheffield — as wonderful as they are — but it is multiple smaller factories, organised and distributed around the globe and a lot of people in manufacturing are contributing in some way to some local supply chain for products that may be finally sold anywhere in the world, or for products that are sold here which are made from components created anywhere in the world. It’s very important for us to be global in our outlook and I think that’s the best way we can serve our many good friends in the UK industry.”
There are three primary ways in which IfM works closely with companies:
1. Student projects: Senior students on IfM courses they would, as an integral part of their course, tackle real problems in real factories all around the UK.
2. Sustainable manufacturing: If companies are interested in sustainable manufacturing in their business, they can commission IFM to research an area. “Commonly we would draw similar companies together to set up a consortium with a subject of mutual interest to a group of companies. That would be more economical for them and they learn from each other as well as from us.”
3. Consultancy: For products, ideas or methods which are fairly well advanced, IfM’s consultancy service is available to augment results. “We think we have a rather distinctive offering, and companies seem to quite like our style, which is more collaborative — can we solve this problem together,” says Gregory. “A lot of industry practice is about let’s make sure I understand best practice and apply it, and there are lots of people who can help with that. We are keen to work on things where we don’t quite know what the answer is — for example like how to develop your international network, who you should be working with, what should you make where, how to understand the partnerships. Helping companies develop their technology strategy for example, helping them to work with each other to understand their local strengths and capabilities and how they can deploy them to best effect.”
A time of huge opportunity
The work sounds highly commendable and it is eye-opening to talk to someone with such a ‘blue sky’ vision of manufacturing and its place for the UK’s future. But do British manufacturers not face more challenges today that at any time in the last 30 years? Mike prefers to talk about opportunities than problems. “As the global networks of manufacturing become more diverse and more open it’s much easier now for a small company in the UK to access global markets — that’s a big opportunity. UK Trade & Investment is a good example of how well connected the UK is globally and as the pace of technological development and market demand heats up, then countries that are innovative and have new ideas, which we seem to be, are in a strong position. Of course there are challenges, there are a lot of other countries that are working very hard and very competitively. We sometimes have a rather downbeat view of UK manufacturing — I think this is a time of huge opportunity for us for all sorts of reasons, not least our research base, our innovative capability, our strong manufacturing infrastructure despite the fact that it’s not as big as it used to be, and our global reach.”
Five year plan
IfM has an enviable academic influence and a global reach with academic and industrial collaborations in 36 countries, and it is working with 170 multinationals on various projects. It is an impressive network; what is IfM’s medium term goal — world domination of the manufacturing academic community? “What we would like to become is really a place where people who are enthusiastic about manufacturing can come together — students, industrialists, scholars, consultants. People who are involved in manufacturing in any of those capacities do get excited about it, but traditionally there weren’t many places you could go to meet people from these communities, so I’d like to see IfM as a meeting place. I said earlier all the good ideas about manufacturing don’t come from university laboratories, they come from people who do it.”
“Manufacturing is it is a collaborative activity and this building is a place where all sorts of people from different backgrounds and disciplines can come together. The goal would be: if a Martian were to land in London, get out of the spaceship and say ‘I want to know about manufacturing, who should I speak to?’, people would ring up the IfM. And if they did that they would find an outfit which is very well connected globally, was linking education, research and management, and engineering, practice and policy. If you want to come and be enthused about manufacturing, you’d come here, and if you wanted to get an authoritative view on various aspects of manufacturing you’d come here. And maybe if you wanted to get a glimpse of the global situation in manufacturing you could come here – a distinctive hub of knowing what is going on in manufacturing and helping companies to work better and more efficiently.”
With a big picture view, background in industry and deep understanding of how the threads of global manufacturing knit together, Professor Mike Gregory is the type of person that, with whom backing it, UK manufacturing has a better chance of succeeding on the world stage.
For more information on a range of events hosted by the IfM including workshops and breakfast briefings, go to: http://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/service/events/centres.html