Meeting of minds

When businesses and universities join forces, the results can be powerful - and academic collaborations are no longer the preserve of big multinationals.

In a North East factory, work is under way to crack a challenge that has so far confounded the oil and gas industry.

Advanced manufacturing and engineering specialist Renown Oil and Gas saw a gap in the market for preparation of the latest offshore marine parts to be used in extreme subsea environments.

However, it proved hard to carry out cladding and machining of the steel/nickel super alloy stacks in a cost-effective way. Restrictions on cutting speed led to low productivity.

Renown joined forces with Northumbria University to tackle the problem. Mechanical engineering graduate Lydia Chan was recruited and assigned to explore solutions, based at the company's plant in Washington, Tyne and Wear.

Her project should enable the firm to slash lead times, according to Renown's Quality Manager, Dale Dreyer, who is overseeing her work in conjunction with her university supervisor.

Halving production times

“We're hoping to almost halve the time it takes to weld the components. Once that's optimised, we will also go on to look at the machining process,” Dreyer says.

“This is a process we wouldn't have had the time or capability to carry out within the company. As far as I know, there's no other work being done on this anywhere.”

While the industry's recent slump has overtaken the project, the working models created by the partnership will leave Renown well placed to capitalise when the oil and gas market picks up, Dreyer adds. Meanwhile, Lydia is gaining valuable experience for her future engineering career.

It's the third 'Knowledge Transfer Partnership' between Renown and Northumbria University. The organisations first made contact when Dreyer completed his apprenticeship with the firm and attended the university to study for a mechanical engineering degree.

“I did my dissertation on a drilling problem that the company faced at the time,” he says. “Off the back of that, our MD spoke to the university about areas for further research.”

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership scheme links businesses with a university and a graduate to work on a specific project to promote innovation and growth. Projects are part-funded by a grant from Innovate UK, the UK's innovation agency.

Injecting innovation

For other firms, the prospect of dealing with academia is potentially daunting. But the business rewards can be great - and help is at hand.

The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) is an independent, not-for-profit body that brings the two sectors together. In a previous incarnation it was focused on major corporates, but its new remit extends to mid-market and small firms, says Chief Executive, Dr David Docherty.

“Fast-growing companies inevitably don't have all the knowledge they need in-house,” he says. “Partnerships with universities can bring them innovation and talent, and enable them to crack the productivity challenge - doing things faster with fewer resources.

“A lot of people think it's just about IP, but it goes well beyond that. The biggest channel for partnerships is consultancy and contract research.”

Current UK partnerships aim to break new ground in new products - for example, the use of graphene to create lighter aircraft - but also in business processes, such as the development of a formula to predict demand for a logistics business.

Partnerships with universities can bring them innovation and talent.

Dr David Docherty, Chief Executive, NCUB

Cultural barriers

Docherty accepts that any collaboration has first to overcome the cultural differences between commerce and academia.

“The biggest barrier is speed,” he says. “If you're running a growing business, your problems are next week's problems. universities are inevitably more focused on their programmes for the year ahead.

“But we're finding that academics are enthused by the partnership and get into the rhythms of the business challenge. And once businesses understand how the system works, they forge great connections.”

Simply finding the right contact to approach in a university can be off-putting. The NCUB's online platform, Konfer, acts as a 'dating site' for research and knowledge exchange, with access to every academic in the UK.

“The idea is to demystify the universities for small and mid-market businesses,” Docherty says. “We aim to reduce the time and friction it takes to find the right person.”

Work experience

In the other direction, the NCUB has also acted to ensure that students are signposted to businesses beyond the usual big household names when seeking work experience. Its BrandU app showcases smaller firms, too.

“Around 250,000 work experience places were offered by businesses last year, and about 60% of those were in small or mid-sized companies, yet students are often very uncertain about those firms,” Docherty says.

“From the employer's perspective, work placements bring extra capabilities and fresh ideas - and many students return to their host company after they graduate.”

Thought leadership from HSBC

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