Unlocking knowledge and understanding

Posted on 5 May 2010 by The Manufacturer

The application of academic knowledge and expertise to industry through the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme has enjoyed a long and prosperous history. Tim Brown finds out the latest from one of the most successful government sponsored programmes and investigates some other collaborative options.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) is a UK-wide programme enabling businesses to improve their competitiveness, productivity and performance through the forming of partnerships with an academic institution such as a university, further education college or research and technology organisation. According to KTP, the scheme is the best performing government-funded programme in terms of jobs generated and demonstrated performance.

An update
Over the past three decades the KTP scheme and its predecessor the Teaching Company Scheme (TCS) have facilitated the completion of more than 10,000 such collaborative projects. At present there are 1000 partnerships operating in the UK.

The Technology Strategy Board which operates the programme for government now wish to double the number of partnerships and are putting increased funding in place.

The knowledge sought through a KTP is imparted to the business through a project, or projects, undertaken by a recently qualified person (known as the associate) who is recruited to work on that project. KTPs can vary in length from one to three years (classic KTP) and from 10-40 weeks (shorter KTP), depending on the needs of the business and the desired outcomes.

According to William Morris, senior KTP adviser, the reason for the success of the programme is that it is ensured that the academic and company partners are completely aligned in what they are trying to achieve before they start. “For quite a lot of very small companies, they have never done anything strategic before. What this programme does at the early stage, is force a company to present its business case as to why it should be undertaking this programme and demonstrate the likely benefits. The whole activity is then focused on delivering those business benefits. The programme obviously evolves as it moves forward but a KTP cannot be commenced unless [a company] knows exactly where it is trying to get to.” Following the commencement of a KTP, the associate is encouraged to get involved with the day to day operation of the company.

“It is very important that the graduate engages with the company and that can be right down to the shop floor level,” says Morris. “There is a constant balancing act between achieving the strategic goals and actually fixing the day to day problems. However, the management structure that actually comes with a KTP helps the person not to get engulfed and simply become another ‘fire fighter’ within the business. However, in order to understand the problems the associate needs also be engaged in the day to day operations, certainly in the early stages, to ensure they are producing valid solutions. The review process ensures the balance.”

Investigating KTP

Companies interested in investigating a KTP further can access a wealth of information on the scheme’s website – www.ktponline.org.uk. The site includes over 300 case studies and lists the local advisors who are there to assist people in getting started. If a company is aware of a university or further education facility with a capability in a particular area then they may make contact directly. Many learning institutions have KTP officers who can actually start doing the brokering and help identify which academic might be suitable for the company’s particular problem.

There is a standard budget allocation for a KTP although the full economic costing of each university and learning institution is marginally different.

On average, a KTP is likely to cost a company somewhere in the order of £18,000 to £20,000 which is actually slightly less than the actual cost of hiring a graduate. The actual complete cost of a KTP is somewhere in the order of £60,000. For the majority of SMEs, the gap in the cost is covered by government funding and covers costs including half a day a week of the supervising academic’s time, the management costs, expendables, travel and the development of the associate.

Collaboration in practice

In March, KTP awarded the 2010 Best UK Partnership to special needs equipment manufacturer James Leckey Design for its association with the University of Ulster. The company, which was started by namesake James Leckey in 1983, produces products which primarily serve children, young people and adults with cerebral palsy. However the company’s equipment is used to assist in the care of a range of conditions requiring postural support. The equipment falls in to different categories and covers 24 hour postural care including: sleep systems for night time support; seating systems which can be on used on a static basis (such as a seat in the classroom) or on a mobility basis (such as a wheel chair); toileting and bathing equipment; and mobility equipment such as walkers.

Seven years ago the Leckey board undertook a strategic review which revealed that the company’s manufacturing process was very much engineering led. Following the review, it was decided that the design of equipment should be led from research and that achieving that would give them a competitive edge. The company wanted to be known for using evidence based practice and for having clinical in-house knowledge and research knowledge. To achieve that goal it was decided that an occupational therapist was the profession from which they could gain those skills. They worked then with the University of Ulster to put that proposal together.

The company accepted the application of clinical occupational therapist Clare Wright who became the associate for Leckey’s project. KTP allowed clinical input to be introduced into product development and testing phases of Leckey’s early activity system, a floor based product for early intervention used from birth to two year old to help with developmental problems. Since its launch in 2007, it has been the fastest selling product for the company, trebling predicted volumes in the product’s first year.

“The combination of accreditation and an evidence based focus in the training programmes has provided Leckey with unique selling points that set it apart from competitors in the market,” says Wright, now clinical research manager at Leckey. “The imbedded research skills within the business have been used to develop a case history programme which objectively measures the clinical effectiveness of the company’s products with a complete range of supporting documentation to systematically record case histories. The programme has received attention from national and international customers and business partners.

“Our research looked at investigating best practice in children’s seating assessments,” says Wright, now clinical research manager at Leckey. “From our perspective, any piece of equipment can only be as effective as how well it is matched to the needs of the user. So we wanted to take a step back and look at what constitutes best practice in the assessment stage. That research was really the first to be done in the UK or Ireland. That identified that there were a number of key issues in terms of assessment skills and we used the outcomes of the research to develop four accredited training courses.”

Since completion of the KTP the company has seen revenue increase by 80% from £4.4m to £8m. Pre-tax profits have increased by over 300% from £245k to £1m. Needless to say it has had a profound impact on the company with an impact on research, design, sales and marketing.

The associated university
The vision of the University of Ulster is very much about having a national and international reputation for excellence, innovation and regional engagement.

The university places a large degree of emphasis on linking with the community and the institution has a long history of collaboration with local industry.

“KTP has allowed us to help to develop some small questions into really good solid robust pieces of work,” says Jackie Casey, lecturer in occupational therapy at the University of Ulster and academic supervisor to the Leckey KTP. “The University can really bring credibility to the research because the companies are not bringing bias. The feedback from industry has been very positive and all of our KTPs have all gone through to successful completion.

Ulster can collaborate between faculties to bring expertise from different areas into the one project that is actively encouraged within the university. We have a dedicated KTP office which includes a team of staff who can meet informally with companies to investigate ideas and guide and develop projects into a successful partnership.”

Caroline McCabe is University of Ulster’s KTP manager. Contact her at [email protected]

Currently engaged
Solo Cup Europe is part of Solo Cup Company, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of single use foodservice packaging products. Close to 18 months ago in association with Teesside University the company engaged product design graduate Alex Brown as a KTP associate to help develop environmentally sensitive and innovative products and introduce the processes to produce them. At the time Brown was part way through his masters in sustainable product design which has since been completed.

With the majority of the two year KTP now complete, Brown says the KTP has already achieved significant improvements for the company. “The team now have a can do attitude as ideas, which previously didn’t necessarily have an outlet, are now able to be fully investigated. We are now developing long term strategic projects which are market led.

This means we have a better understanding of the market and are no longer just reactive to customer requirements and competitor developments.” With the aid of KTP, Solo Cup Europe is looking forward to continued success and further innovative achievements. The next period in the company’s operation promises to be exciting with Brown helping to design stylish, useable and patentable products which the company hopes will be market leading.

Alternatives to KTP

Foundation Degrees
Of course, a KTP or indeed strict university collaboration is not the requirement of every organisation. Indeed, many companies simply require a more enlightened workforce so as to develop the business further. Enter foundation degrees, which include engineering and manufacturing specific qualifications, which are university level qualifications designed in association with employers. The degrees combine academic study with workplace learning to equip people with the relevant knowledge, understanding and skills to improve performance and productivity.

The foundation degrees are designed for people that didn’t see higher education as a direct route when they were at school. The foundation degrees mix vocational with higher education in a work based situation. So the practical application is much stronger than perhaps a vocational degree.

The foundation degrees allow for the combination of learning and earning and could be considered simply just a different route to higher education.

While the popularity of foundation degrees continuing to increase (in 2008 there were more than 70,000 foundation students), access to the degrees are still limited to those with an already reasonable standard of scholastic ability. Due to a request from employers to find a progressive route to up-skill employees from a basic engineering qualification to the foundation degree, group training organisations have developed a range of bridging courses. One such organisation, the Hull Engineering Training Association (Heta) has combined with the University of to develop a qualification to test the academic capability of the learner, which if completed allows the student to continue on to the foundation degree. The four foundation degrees available through Hull are: mechanical engineering; electrical and electronic engineering; plant engineering; and chemical and process engineering.

The next foundation courses commence in September with enrolments now open.

Higher Education Institution (HEI) Collaboration
One of seven HEI Collaboration projects supported by the East Midland’s Transport iNet in 2009 saw the University of Nottingham team up with Loughborough University for the first time. They enlisted the technical expertise of Loughboroughbased M. Wright and Sons Ltd, skilled manufacturers of high technology 3D woven textile products, to research new manufacturing processes for multi fibre architecture composites.

Professor Nick Warrior from the University of Nottingham, says the 12 month R&D project proved successful in producing next-generation composite materials.

“The successful collaboration received £223,000 from the Transport iNet for research and development to determine mechanical performance of novel multi-architecture processes and identify new manufacturing technologies for lightweight materials, for use in a variety of transport sectors including automotive, aerospace and marine.

Cranfield University

The Manufacturing Department, under the direction of Professor Rajkumar Roy, has a highly active programme of industry sponsored research across the areas of manufacturing technology and manufacturing management.

We are a major contributor to Cranfield being third in the UK for the impact of its mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing research. Of particular interest within the department is The Centre for Competitive Creative Design (C4D) is a £5.5 million partnership with the University of the Arts, London. At University-level it is a major contributor to Cranfield’s Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre which is central to the university’s manufacturing expertise.