From mortar boards to drawing boards
The recent Knowledge Transfer Partnerships awards in London revealed some interesting collaborations between the engineering and academic communities.
As an engineering manager, if you could fill out a questionnaire and write that you'd boosted pre-tax profits by a little under £250,000, had been forced to create three new staff positions and institute a new training initiative to cope with the demands for new skills in your company, you'd be thinking of this as a 'good day at the office'.
And if that wasn't enough, this was all a result of some bright spark from a local educational institution coming in and solving your technical problems for your commercial benefit.
If you are reading this and are not familiar with the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), this may all seem too good to be true. But a visit to the Church House Conference Centre in Westminster last month for the KTP Annual awards soon demonstrated that such partnerships between the academic and the engineering communities are bearing fruit at an inspirational rate. It also underscored the value of KTPs, and the awards that recognise the programme's innovative partnership projects, which range from the development of technology to assist with the renovation of the Cutty Sark, to examining the mechanical capabilities of synthetic ski-slope systems.
And the winner is...
This year's winners received their awards from Jonathan Kestenbaum, chief executive of NESTA (National Executive for Science, Technology and the Arts). In his keynote speech, Kestenbaum spoke of the need for developing meaningful links between the academic and business worlds, saying: "If business and universities do not work together on innovation the UK will face a very uncertain future. Our competitiveness depends on them sharing the rich base of knowledge they produce. The winners of these awards have seen some dramatic results."
He went on to say that the partnerships provided the opportunity for those more used to the academic and research environment to gain experience of the commercial world. There were times, he says, where moving into this world would advance the career prospects of the individual while providing a welcome new dimension of academic prowess to the business. Kestenbaum is a good example of this point: his glittering business career started in the world of education, where he built an international programme for promising young educators. From this start he has gone from strength to strength in a career that has included a stint as chief of staff to Sir Ronald Cohen, chairman of Apax, as well as a seat on the board of the Design Council, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Technology Strategy Board (the organisation that heads the non-departmental public body that administrates the KTP).
As well as an awards ceremony, the Church House Conference Centre hosted a small exhibition by the winning partnerships, where the practical aspects of the collaborations could be demonstrated.
The Cutty Sark Trust worked with the University of Greenwich School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences to deliver a KTP that aimed to transfer finite element analysis (FEA) skills and technologies to help with the conservation of the mid-19th century tea clipper.
The project resulted in the identification of optimised designs for dismantling and reassembly of the ship with resulting improvement on conservation operations. These results were also used to support a successful bid for Heritage Lottery funding, which contributed a further £10m to the conservation programme, which in the light of the severe damage caused by a suspected arson attack in 2007, is more pressing than ever.
Other exhibits included that of the partnership between Caledonian Aerotech and Heriot-Watt University. Caledonian recycle nickel, cobalt and titanium super alloys for the aerospace industry and had called in Heriot-Watt's School of Engineering and Physical Sciences to help them to identify and implement a means or reducing volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions within its existing alloy degreasing process. The results of the partnership have improved the company's ability to minimise the environmental impact of its nickel alloy turnings cleaning process, as well as enabling them to develop a new process for cleaning titanium that has allowed Caledonian to enter a previously closed market in the US.
Forward looking partnerships
For the past three decades the KTP initiative (along with its predecessor, the Teaching Company Scheme) has given British firms the opportunity to break into new technologies, markets, processes and production methodologies. First established in the mid-1970s by the Science & Engineering Research Council, its aim has been no less than to strengthen the competitiveness, wealth creation and economic performance of the UK by 'enhancement of knowledge and skills, and the stimulation of innovation through collaborative projects between business and the knowledge base' ('knowledge base' broadly means higher education, university or research institutions). The process was based on the teaching hospital idea of 'learning by doing'.
Within a partnership there are two additional components to the 'knowledge base': the company partner and the KTP associate. This triangular relationship is intended to benefit all parties with knowledge being transferred (perhaps in the modern context 'exchanged' might be a better word) in a two-way process between the parties.
The KTP defines this process as a set of four objectives:
- The transfer of knowledge and the spread of business and technology skills through innovation projects is undertaken by high caliber, recently qualified people under the joint supervision of personnel from the business and knowledge base;
- To provide 'company-based training for graduates in order to enhance their business and specialist skills within the context of the project';
- To stimulate and enhance 'business-relevant education and research undertaken by the knowledge base';
- To increase the awareness of the 'contribution the knowledge base can make to business development and growth'.
When the first year's results were gathered in there were only a handful of partnerships benefiting from the scheme. Today there are over 1,000, with the steady increase of growth met by increased contributions from the public sectors, where there are now 18 funding bodies, of which the Technology Strategy board is the leader. When the scheme first set sail it was specifically with engineering projects in mind, but over the years the remit has broadened into more general physical and social sciences, while today the KTPs cover almost every sector of business.
As for the future of the KTPs Iain Gray, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, says: "The prospects for KTP in future are excellent. Plans include expanding the number of partnerships, varying their format and widening their appeal to make them an even more potent driver of innovation in UK business."