A special relationship

Improving the synergy between academia and industry is crucial to the UK economy.

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The relationship between academia and industry can be best described as one of mutual dependency. Academia produces research, from concept through to construction, and graduates, as part of a people pipeline heading towards the household names with which we are familiar.

Graduate “schemes” are accepted as the ebb and flow of this relationship; but what if there was a way to enhance it? What if industry didn’t have to wait for graduation to start making the most of universities? Rolls-Royce, a pioneer in partnerships, asks precisely these questions.

The result is a network of University Technology Centres (UTCs), spread across 31 institutions globally, with each centre prescribed to addressing a key technology. Formalised, long-term partnerships with the UTCs equip Rolls-Royce with efficient access to high-quality research, allow the development of associations with lecturers and course deliverers, connecting the company with the wider academic world, and providing a mechanism for training the next generation of experts. Each UTC is ‘owned’ by an internal Rolls-Royce business unit, typically the engineering team of a supply chain looking for new technology to play a part in product advancement. Each UTC addresses a distinct technical discipline, such as noise, combustion, performance, aerodynamics, nuclear or manufacturing. Funding comes through rolling five-year contracts, which enable UTC teams to take a long-term, strategic view of how to achieve specified research goals set together  with Rolls-Royce.

While the pure science of any course mustn’t be diluted, crucially Rolls-Royce recognises the advantage of being able to apply real-life content to degrees in order to make them more readily transferable to the working world. If courses are tailored to industry requirements earlier in the pipeline, then this sets up a natural segue for graduates into employment. Making this transition more fluid not only benefits all stakeholders professionally, but in terms of inter-personal skills, it prevents people from being overwhelmed at the dawn of their careers.

There is, however, an admissible challenge, as noted by a 2015 government report led by Professor Dame Ann Dowling, to overcome the stand-off between universities’ existing assessment metrics and courses’ real-life applications.

Dowling suggested, and Rolls-Royce wholeheartedly agrees, that industrial placements and things which make a real-life ‘impact’ should be weighted equally alongside all other coursework.  Dowling’s report, which generally reasons the benefits of short-term and long-term knowledge exchange, hammers home the need invest in collaborative research and development (R&D) as a driver for overall national growth and productivity.

The UTC model was initially concentrated in the United Kingdom – the first centres were established at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford in 1990 – but today’s network duly reflects Rolls-Royce’s international outlook. There are 19 centres at 14 UK universities, four at German universities and others in Italy, Norway, Sweden, the United States and Asia. Location choices have been strategic – for example the UTCs based in the Nordics focus on  marine technology research – and each UTC is led by a senior academic with a global reputation in their field; supported by research fellows, assistants, technicians and cohorts of students undertaking PhDs or other higher degrees. There are currently 1,000 people working within the UTC network, 500 of which are studying for their doctorates. To contextualise the success of the UTC network, consider that around 25 per cent of the PhD graduates involved in it go on to work directly for Rolls-Royce, the project sponsor.  This is much better than the industry average, with more still joining the supply chain. Those who choose to stay within academia continue to contribute research to industry well after completing their courses and Rolls-Royce makes sure that it sustains this relationship effectively as well.

Howard Stone, deputy director at the Rolls-Royce UTC at the University of Cambridge, hails the network as a great facilitator. He says: “Working closely with Rolls-Royce over many years has enabled us to pursue a wide range of fundamental research activities that address the needs of the UK aerospace industry. This research has led to the development of new alloys and materials technologies that may ultimately contribute to future, more efficient aero-engines.”

Rolls-Royce invested £1.3bn into its R&D in 2016 and the accomplishments of the UTCs, we feel, more than justify that decision. No fewer than six UTCs contributed to the development of the swept fan blade for the Trent 900 that powers the Airbus A380. Birmingham’s Materials UTC set to work characterising material properties, measuring model resistance; The Solid Mechanics UTC at Oxford identified the effects of foreign object damage; Imperial College London evaluated bladed disc vibration; research in Whittle Laboratory in Cambridge produced a range of 3D fan flow models; and other UTC inputs regarding noise-related design came from Southampton and Nottingham, which specialises in manufacturing issues, delivered tooling concepts now used in a more efficient blade production process. The Airbus A380 had its first commercial flight in October 2007 and in September 2017 Rolls-Royce has Trent 900 engines for 151 aircraft on order or in service.

Although the success of the UTCs sets a strong precedent, it is important not to get complacent. Long-term Industrial Strategy should be at the heart of any government’s plans. As a company, which accounts for 0.7 per cent of GDP and 2 per cent of UK exports, Rolls-Royce is committed to improving the this country’s overall skills supply – the uptake of STEM subjects is still not matching demand – and bridging the gap between the lecture theatre and real life. Diversity of insight can only be attained through diversity of experience and expertise; and if two heads are better than one, 31 UTCs are going about their research the right way. After all, your network is what determines your net worth.

Kate Barnard is Engineering Manager Engineering Manager – University Research, Engineering and Technology at Rolls-Royce.