The opportunities for collaboration between industry and academia are now too big to ignore, argues E&T, as we review a recent conference that took in topics as diverse as space technology, Iron Age artefacts, materials analysis and government funding.
'University, Industry and Impact', was a conference held as part of the 30th anniversary of Brunel's Experimental Techniques Centre, ETCbrunel. The centre specialises in surface science and micro analysis, and aims to bridge the gap between university and business.
As researchers know only too well, the current economic climate makes for increased scrutiny of universities and academics to ensure that their work makes relevant contributions to the industrial sector, and a demonstrable social and economic impact.
At Brunel - which is based in west London, and is of course named after the 19th century engineer famous for a range of ambitious projects - this philosophy is reflected in an academic approach that combines practicality with imagination. Introducing the conference, the university's vice chancellor Professor Chris Jenks said that, 'The drive for relevance and impact defines exactly what we have been doing for a very long time.'
Similarly, ETCbrunel's director, Dr Robert Bulpett, recognises the need of industry to access university science in many ways and forms, and the centre's work ranges from one-off materials analyses to long-term investigative research projects. This strategy moves it away from the stereotypical academic bubble, instead enabling partnerships with companies, government agencies, schools, other academics and the funding bodies.
Delegates from across these sectors attended the conference, to examine how university science could be applied to their business, find new partners and investigate potential funding options. A number of case studies were presented at the conference. They highlighted user-focused research as a partnership between university and industry, and outlined the availability of several different funding routes that can be accessed to initiate and support this kind of collaborative work.
Tony Anson, director of Diameter, a company specialising in advanced micro materials, is enthusiastic about collaborative R&D. He approached Brunel University to assist with research and development of nanostructured coating technology. The partnership aimed to improve machining tool performance and energy efficiency through enhanced coatings.
Academics from ETCbrunel investigated thin-film structure and surface morphology, materials microstructure balance, and adherence of debris, in tandem with Anson's commercial team developing the production processes. The optimised tooling showed a five-fold improvement in lifetime, coupled with a 36 per cent reduction in power consumption. The research has resulted in a new product range, and developed the company's production standard.
Protecting industry's commercial interests - while satisfying the university and academic desire to publish and disseminate findings - can sometimes be problematic. In this case, however, the partners elucidated the mechanisms of efficiency and performance improvement, and have been able to jointly publish two peer-reviewed materials-science research papers as a result of this work.
Publication of results can also be helpful to industry in securing new funding. Indeed, Anson sees this work as a stepping stone, saying, 'This activity has attracted new industry and academic partners to a fresh research project.' The work will further develop both technology and systems for smart and effective engineering manufacturing, with the aim of delivering a step-change in extending the life of cutting tools and improving tool performance.
This project plan, in concert with proven technology from the initial Diameter-Brunel research, helped the consortium to secure investment from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) in the form of a project under its High Value Manufacturing programme.
Announcing the award, one of 33 projects to be supported in a £24m funding programme for manufacturing research, TSB chief executive Iain Gray said, 'This investment is intended to maintain and develop the international competitiveness of UK manufacturing companies ... It's also important to ensure that companies continue to innovate during the downturn to ensure a successful recovery for the UK economy.'
Awarded through competition, the match funding principles for large applied research projects often mean that the government contribution is below 50 per cent of the full cost incurred by the commercial partner. This, and the long lead-time often needed for a funding decision, can sometimes dissuade companies from taking part, particularly in the type of novel - but high-risk - research likely to lead to innovative breakthroughs.
However, small-scale initial projects can also receive financial support from government agencies, as recently experienced by Dr Sabina Orlowska, of microwave tube manufacturer TMD Technologies. The company was experiencing problems with developing cathode heater packages that could meet requirements for a very fast warm-up time, approaching three seconds from the more usual 180 seconds. Putting the theoretical prototype into practice resulted in some material failures, which were a crucial obstacle for putting the cathode heater into production.
Funding from the London Development Agency (LDA), in the form of a Secondment into Knowledge grant, enabled TMD to work with Brunel to investigate the critical problem of cathode heater legs' embrittlement, which had appeared since the new 'fast warm' materials based on aluminium nitride were introduced into the cathode potting.
The funding enabled Orlowska to work at Brunel for 12 days over the course of the project, using its analytical equipment and engaging with academic metallurgists and materials scientists, in order to help understand and solve this problem of tungsten embrittlement in an aluminium nitride potting environment. The TMD researcher was trained at ETCbrunel in using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) techniques. This enables imaging at up to half a million times magnification, as well as compositional analysis. The technique was used directly in the investigation of the fractured cathode heater samples. Close examination under SEM enabled ETCbrunel's Bulpett to recognise the problem responsible for the wire embrittlement - grain growth, exacerbated by hydrogen penetration inside the tungsten wire structure.
Development of materials, coating techniques and sintering conditions followed, with the LDA grant enabling further analysis with SEM to produce informative images, as well as input from ETCbrunel to help interpret the findings. This resulted in significant and rapid progress in understanding the materials processes and product development. The problem was overcome and devices using this product are now on the market. This stage could not have been achieved with such rapidity, if at all, with the industrial partner acting independently.
This university-based analytical work and knowledge exchange helped solve the immediate problem, generated a new product, secured jobs and increased the company's turnover. But perhaps equally beneficial was the way that the work stimulated both partners into generating new ideas.
For TMD this project has opened up new avenues for materials testing and scope to apply these in other areas. The academics at the Experimental Techniques Centre were able to apply expertise and techniques to problems encountered by the industrial manufacturing sector. It has also resulted in the partners coming together to form a new collaboration, starting this year, which will research nanostructured carbon for novel X-ray devices, with the support of the EPSRC's Industrial CASE scheme.
Many research-intensive universities are moving away from a structure based solely on traditional disciplines. This enhances one further advantage of working with universities: the availability of researchers in a wide range of fields, all together in a single organisation. This enables the diverse cross-fertilisation of ideas, which can lead to process improvements and even step-changes in operation. This is was highlighted in two of the research programmes presented at the University, Industry and Impact conference.
New designs of plastics are far from archaeologist Lorna Anguilano's usual line of work, which is the assessment of Iron Age artefacts. However, applying the same analytical techniques to the study of extruded polythene, Anguilano's work has helped to identify the effect of ultrasound waves on the crystal structure, texture and crystal size within a commercial grade of polyethylene. This in turn has assisted in the development of new processing methods that enable a more homogeneous material to be produced.
Further cross-over technology has been highlighted by academics at Brunel University and University College London, working with The Forensic Science Service. The researchers have applied an analysis technique borrowed from space science to the forensic investigation of mobile phones. With applications in arson attacks and terrorist incidents, the team investigated phones that had been destroyed by fire or explosion, outlining an alternative technique to extract details from memory devices that have been severely affected by temperature or impact. The method adapts atomic force microscopy to enable nanoscale direct probing of the stored charge in individual memory cells, which can be used to access the retained data, even if the chip's circuitry is extensively damaged. The project is expanding, improving the technique to develop new tools for forensic investigators.
These snap-shot case studies of university-industry collaborations demonstrate how an initial small and low-budget collaboration can produce useful results and enhance industry development. Government support can often be critical in initiating these projects and has helped lead on to bigger collaborative projects with greater impact. These ventures - just a few of the many examples available - show how university research in concert with commercial organisations can have applicability in wider society, enhancing company R&D, and improving the knowledge-based economy.
Dr Ben Jones is research co-ordinator at ETCbrunel.