Partners who deliver
Collaborating with a university can bring great value, but manufacturers also need to be aware of the potential pitfalls, says E&T.
When Plymouth-based Kawasaki Precision Machinery wanted to optimise the performance of a range of hydraulic radial piston motors, it realised that a mathematical model of the operation of the motor would be needed in order to achieve its goal.
The trouble was, the company lacked the requisite skills in-house. Accordingly, it turned to the Knowledge Transfer Partnership scheme, administered by the government's Technology Strategy Board.
In a two-year project, a graduate associate from the University of Plymouth helped the company work with mathematical modelling techniques, leading to both improved performance and reduced test failure rates on the range of motors in question. The result? Increased sales, and substantial cost savings.
"We now see the University of Plymouth as a local partner in our long-term continuous improvement programme," says Gerry Warren, technical manager at Kawasaki. "This project has generated savings in excess of £60,000 per annum."
Such stories aren't new, of course. And the Knowledge Transfer Partnership scheme - 35 years old this year - isn't the only option: a whole range of collaborative models exist to unite businesses and universities.
By working closely with a university, a manufacturing business can gain access to first-class expertise - and often at cut-price rates, with (as at Kawasaki) projects being partially funded by government bodies. The university benefits through access to practical problems and real-life applications, as well as from the additional income received from manufacturing companies and government bodies.
"The problems you get from real-life manufacturers are far more challenging that those that you might dream up and submit to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as a research proposal," enthuses Professor Martin Newby of City University's School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.
Which research partner to choose?
How can a manufacturing business be certain that has found the right university partner? How can it protect its intellectual capital, having invested hard cash in developing a technical advance? And what sorts of projects or initiatives best lend themselves to collaboration with a university?
Look at how businesses work with universities, and some surprising answers emerge. For the typical manufacturer, collaboration is almost certainly an untapped opportunity. In short, it's easier than you think, cost-effective, and need not present problems with respect to intellectual property protection.
Take the challenge of finding the right university to partner with. Government-funded bodies such as regional development agencies, it turns out, exist to provide that advice, helping to broker collaborations. Better still, development agencies are generally very familiar with the range of applicable government-funded schemes. In short, they're something of a one-stop shop, providing access to skilled academic researchers, as well as information and advice over available grant funding.
"Our role is to bring together two things: problems that are intellectually stimulating, so that universities will want to work on them, and genuine needs that businesses recognise as priorities," says Stephen Gray, head of manufacturing at Birmingham-based Advantage West Midlands, one such body. "It's a combination of an 'honest broker' role, some pump-priming if there are finance issues, and helping companies to navigate the various processes that are involved."
Regional development agencies aren't the only door on which to knock, though. Manufacturers can go directly to the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, for instance, which maintains a network regional advisors to provide guidance.
Edinburgh-based Interface - another such body - acts as a central point of access to Scotland's research base to manufacturing companies on both sides of the border. Facing a technical issue with product shelf-life, for example, Edinburgh-based Nairn's Oatcakes turned to Interface when it realised that solving the problem lay outside its own expertise and abilities.
Interface introduced the company to a number of institutions, explains technical director Gavin Love, prompting a tie-in with the Scottish Crop Research Institute. As at Kawasaki, a Knowledge Transfer Partnership turned out to be the best solution, with an associate from the Institute working full-time at Nairn's, but able to call upon the Institute's full breadth of expertise, as well as its laboratory and testing equipment.
"The main reason companies come to us is because they've not previously worked with a university, and have no knowledge as to how to go about it," says Interface director Dr Siobhan Jordan. "They say: 'We don't know what we don't know', and a kind of paralysis sets in, where it becomes easier to do nothing."
That said, going through an organisation such as Interface isn't mandatory, and companies may feel more comfortable working first with a local university - or one where they have some other form of link - while they become accustomed to the idea of involving academic outsiders in the business.
Cranfield University's School of Management, for instance, hosts a number of no-obligation 'open days' at which recent research findings are presented, as well as any associated tools and techniques.
"Sometimes these lead to collaborative research or a consulting project - and sometimes to projects with an element of both," notes Cranfield's Dr Marek Szwejczewski, director of the Best Factory Awards scheme that the university has operated for the past 17 years. "But we try not to do pure consulting work: ideally we want to work on projects that solve practical problems, as well as work that leads to an advance in knowledge."
What's more, commonly-used phrases such as 'technology transfer' in the context of collaboration between businesses and universities can be thoroughly misleading, notes Michael Kitson, senior lecturer in Economics at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School.
Equally common is help and advice in the application of new management concepts to real-life business environments, he notes - providing 'hands on' help in applying lean production techniques in a particularly complex industrial environments, for instance, can generate learning opportunities for the academics as well as business benefits for the manufacturer. "It's a two-way process," he stresses. "It's about knowledge exchange, rather than technology transfer."
At Manchester-based engineering company Parsons Reiss, for example, graduate students from Lancaster University Management School helped the company determine whether it should be entering new markets as part of its continuing growth strategy.
A specialist supplier of engineering services and machinery to the tissue, board and paper industry, the company saw the potential in extending its heavy-engineering capabilities to other industries beyond paper machinery, but wanted help in carrying out a 'SWOT' analysis to determine which industries were a 'best fit'.
Parsons Reiss managing director Chris Wright is delighted with the assistance provided by Lancaster MSc students Deepika Gupta and Rosalin Saki. The work successfully identified several new markets, he notes, and work is actively underway to enter them.
"When you're heavily involved with a business, getting a bit of breathing space in which to think through ideas can be surprisingly difficult," he explains. "Going to Lancaster University Management School got us a totally fresh approach - and one that was totally independent and came from people with no axe to grind."
But what is it actually like, working with a university? Coventry-based electric vehicle manufacturer Microcab has worked with several academic institutions over the years, and has recently been working with the University of Birmingham's School of Chemical Engineering on a project brokered by government regional development body Advantage West Midlands, designed to deliver a practical real-life test-bed for competing vehicle manufacturers' offerings.
"You have to get used to how universities work, and how the academic management structure takes decisions," advises managing director John Jostins. "I'm used to working in small, fleet-footed companies, and a university is a bit like an oil tanker: it takes time to turn it."
That said, he stresses, the investment in effort is usually well worth it. Birmingham University, its academic partner, is carrying out data-logging of a number of Microcab vehicles used in a mail delivery role on campus, providing highly-detailed technical data on vehicle loads, motor currents and fuel cell outputs, tracking them on a minute-by-minute basis across a wide range of terrains, climate conditions and duty cycles.
"Not only are we getting first-class data, but trying to carry out an exercise on that scale would be a major undertaking for a company like ours," says Jostins. "Working with a university is an ideal partnership: we need the data, and the topic is of interest to the university - so it's a win-win for both sides."
But who actually owns that data? It's a question that often cuts right to the heart of the whole collaboration question.
"One of our jobs is to encourage businesses and universities to think about intellectual property issues before they get too involved in the collaboration process," says Dr Paul Naylor, a senior adviser with the Knowledge Transfer Partnership. "Intellectual property rights can be a stumbling block, and if that's the case, it's better to address the problem earlier rather later."
"Academics are becoming much more pragmatic," adds Interface's Dr. Jordan. "They understand that companies must be able to exploit technological advances commercially, otherwise there's no point going into the relationship. But discussions about intellectual property needs to begin early - don't leave it too late."
And in any event, she stresses, when collaboration merely concerns the application of existing knowledge to a different environments - as is surprisingly often the case, it turns out - then the question of intellectual property doesn't arise.
That said, when it does arise, some basic ground rules apply.
First, it's usual for all participants in publicly-funded (or even part-publicly-funded) research to have equal rights to the knowledge gained.
"Businesses have to recognise that they are going to take a hit in that respect - they don't have total control," says Advantage West Midlands' Stephen Gray. "They're getting more intellectual property through collaboration, but not sole-rights intellectual property."
Second, businesses need to distinguish between ownership and secrecy. "Once a patent is filed, the information it contains is public knowledge," says Professor Kevin Kendall of the University of Birmingham's School of Chemical Engineering. "It's the ownership of the intellectual property that is important, and not whether it's available in the public domain or not."
Finally, manufacturers shouldn't accept the first intellectual property rights contract presented to them.
"Most universities have templates that they offer their partners, but they're really just a starting point for negotiation," says the Knowledge Transfer Partnership's Paul Naylor.
"And those partners have more bargaining power than they might realise: there's a growing sense in universities that collaboration with business is important - it's one of the ways that they are assessed for funding - so the sticking points should be fewer than they once were."