The power of knowledge

Posted on 18 Apr 2008 by The Manufacturer

Ruari McCallion looks for successful university/manufacturing collaborations and wonders why our universities aren’t swamped with business people, pounding on the doors for help with innovation

The gap between academia and business was perfectly illustrated for me by, of all things, an episode in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. A planet had detected a massive and ferocious alien army tearing through its galaxy, despoiling and smashing everything in its path. The authorities locked the world’s leading research scientist in his lab and ordered him to design irresistible weapons and a perfect defence system. Six months later, they opened the door. He’d got bored, his attention wandered and he’d developed a f ly that could find its way out of half-open windows and an ‘off-switch’ for children, which led to much rejoicing. When the aliens arrived, they were puzzled as to why they’d met no resistance. When they found out, they joined in the celebrations, too. It turned out they’d only gone off despoiling and stuff because things were so awful at home. The moral of the story is: you can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you may find you get what you need.
Academics and businesspeople aren’t, generally, cut from the same cloth. British universities have been state, rather than private, funded for
a long time and maybe haven’t been exposed to the same rigours of financial competition as, say, those in the US. Until recent years, our universities have been pretty exclusive, too; in the 1970s, only 10 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to higher education and so the majority of people in senior positions in engineering won’t necessarily have been inside the hallowed halls of academe. Not that we’ve been short of good and immensely valuable ideas coming out of the science and engineering laboratories, from penicillin at Oxford University to DNA fingerprinting at Leicester. Cranfield is totally business-oriented
– no fluffy arts stuff for pretty boys and dreamy girls, there – and it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the University of Warwick ends and industry begins, so close is its work with the auto industry. But not all relations between the two sides go well.
“One early project was with a university that had developed a means of predicting demand. We wanted to use it to speed up our quotation process,” said one respondent, who had probably better remain anonymous. “They were incredibly confident they could do it but it was a disaster. The first thing that happened was: they went on holiday and we didn’t hear anything for three months. Two years later, we abandoned the whole thing. These kinds of experiences put people in business off.”
But you don’t have to have been coming from the commercial world to encounter academic short-sightedness. Feonic plc is a kind of spin-out from Hull University, established by a group of professors to exploit the potential of Terfanol-D, a ‘smart’ rare earth material. Its best-known product currently is probably the SoundBug, which can turn any hard surface into a loudspeaker. “We went on Tomorrow’s World in 1992 and got about 100 enquiries, which made us realise we were closer to market than we had appreciated,” said Brenda Hopkins, company chairman.
One of the enquiries was from Anglo-American, which was interested in the technology for rock drilling applications. It wanted to work with a company, rather than the university research department as such, and so Feonic was set up. It had a ton of enquiries and a contracted project, but it still couldn’t even get £100 investment from the university. There has been informal, or rather, non-formal work with individual scientists but the major collaborative efforts have been ith Birmingham, on magnetics; and with Bristol,
Salford and Southampton, which is working with thin films. “We’ve also done some work with Oxford University on noise management, which is very encouraging, and with the University of Brighton on magnetostrictive devices.” That is to do with the reaction of smart materials to magnetic fields. Feonic now has a partnership with a Chinese business, which is bringing manufacturing costs down.
“Our Chinese partner is making the SoundBug much more economically, to retail at just above $10, rather than £25. At that level, there’s a lot of interest,” Hopkins said. “When it comes to manufacturing, the universities probably can’t help.” In that, she may be mistaken. Caparo Group has benefited from work with several.
“We work with different universities in a whole series of ways,” said John Wood, head of Caparo Engineering group of companies in the west Midlands. “We’re doing some student projects, KTP (knowledge transfer partnership) and KITTS (Knowledge, Innovation, Technology, Transfer Scheme). We are currently talking to a small company that has a KTP placement who redesigned their storage bin product, so it would both nest and stack. Another business we know of had someone work on a marketing project. He analysed the market in a way the company hadn’t thought of and helped enormously. Without KTP, they wouldn’t have had the resources.” KITTS is a west Midlands regional initiative, involving 10 partner universities within the west Midlands and part-funded by the European Social Fund (ESF), and Advantage West Midlands (AWM). Projects typically run for 10 to 12 weeks.
“Sometimes, we work with universities on specific projects or consultancy,” Wood continued. “We’re working with people at Birmingham University on aluminium castings – they have a specialist working on motorsport engines. They have computer simulation packages that involve more capital investment than we can justify.” That may seem an odd statement, as Caparo is a globe-spanning, multi-billion pound organisation. But the engineering group that Wood is responsible for is made up of six main organisations, across 24 units in the west Midlands and Poland. It employs around 1,200 people, generating £80 million to £90 million turnover, mostly in traditional ‘metal-bashing’ activities. “When I was given responsibility for the group, 12 years ago, I considered how to develop synergies and sought ways to bring value to the grouping, through innovation, a higher technical base and more value-added opportunities. We run our companies lean and autonomous and some are quite small, so it’s hard to develop internal resources. We developed links with universities in order to get academic and theoretical input into problems and issues.” The Caparo Innovation Centre (CIC), a joint venture with Wolverhampton University, is intended to help small inventors and innovative companies to develop ideas through design and marketing into full business plans.
“Anyone – company or individual – can come to CIC with an idea and they will help,” he said. That sounds like an open invitation to all sorts of crackpots but there is a method for sorting wheat from chaff. “We’ve developed an assessment scheme, which is the first in this country.” The success rate is small: CIC has to be sure it’s backing ideas that have promise. “We use a number of criteria, including whether the IP (intellectual property) is patentable; the ease of manufacture; competition in the marketplace; cost of manufacture; how much capital is required; time to market – it’s quite a sophisticated thing. Everyone who’s used it has been very complimentary.” That ‘everyone’ includes Proctor & Gamble. “One of the things that impresses them is that it can assess different criteria and change the weighting, depending on what you’re looking at. Also, they like the independence – you can keep an idea at arm’s length until it’s been assessed properly and then sign up.” Over five years, Wood reckons CIC has considered 600 different ideas. Among those taken forward are a ‘diesel misfuelling prevention device’, which screws into the filler-pipe and ensures that the nozzle going in is the right size. With over 150,000 incidents of misfuelling a year in hire cars, it clearly has potential. Another is a food timer, which will tell consumers if the halfopened packet of ham or something in the fridge
is still fit for consumption. It can be adapted for time-based industrial applications, too. Market research says that new mothers are the ones most concerned about food timing. Another is a roll-up weighing mat, which was brought to them by a midwife. The list goes on. “We have the first option for six months. If we want to take an idea up, we negotiate a formal legal contract for royalties going forward.”
The growing and flourishing connection between universities and commerce is evidenced by science parks across the country, as well as arrangements like the University of Sheffield and Boeing Corporation’s Advanced Manufacturing and Research Centre, which will build on and enhance the existing skills base. The universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York work together as the White Rose University Consortium, bringing together various skills in areas including physics, biosciences and nanotechnology. In Germany, university/industry collaboration is part of the culture, which may explain their strong innovative performance.
“In the majority of cases we operate in direct cooperation with each university and its relevant institute, ie the engineering faculty. Large research organisations associated with universities such as Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft play an important role [and] funding from this area provides a crucial resource,” said Dr Helmut Naber, head of corporate development, MAN AG. “MAN maintains contact with approximately 70 universities and numerous external research institutes in 18 countries.” In the UK, it works with the universities of Manchester and Bath, and with Imperial College London. “As part of the cooperation activities, students are given an opportunity to work on specific MAN research and development projects, allowing participants to become involved in highly-interesting technological issues. We have created the MAN campus initiative with Technische Universität München (TU Munich), our first ‘preferred partner university’. This initiative offers the chance to participate on a range of innovative projects, a course of lectures and a scholarship scheme at TU Munich.” MAN believes consistent staff training and motivation are essential to maintaining engineering excellence and high quality. Applications of collaboration o beyond the manufacturer’s walls, too. A truck driving simulator at TU Munich is used for testing and optimising the company’s ACC stop-and-go driver assistance system.
“We are open for new partnerships as far as they fit into our R&D or continuing education strategies,” said Dr Naber. “Both sides benefit from this cooperation as the universities gain access to MAN’s global know-how, and MAN is introduced to the finest crop of talent at an early stage. From the student’s point of view, they are able to prove their ability on a project, either through gaining work experience or as part of a degree or postgraduate course, and enhance their chances of being hired by MAN after completing their studies.” It’s a lesson well worth learning.