Customer and practice

UK universities collaborate on project aimed at attracting more engineers to service roles within manufacturing organisations. Anh Nguyen reports.

A consortium of UK universities has launched a research project to tackle the growing demand for professional engineers readily-equipped with service sector skills.

Funded by BAE Systems and the EPSRC, Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) is leading the team to explore how engineers can become better prepared for an industry that is moving to provide product-related services as well as products themselves.

Other universities involved include Bath, Queens in Belfast, Cranfield, Exeter, Leeds, Loughborough, Nottingham and Salford.

‘Roughly 50 per cent of engineering students and increasingly more end up in service-type jobs,’ said Prof Duncan McFarlane, head of IfM service and support engineering. This leads to challenges they are often unprepared for, such as cutting costs, meeting environmental goals and using new engineering techniques to make the most of existing infrastructure.

‘Another big thing is that manufacturing industries are now embracing services connected to their products and trying to build full-life services — whether it is connected to a car or a Hewlett-Packard (HP) printer, they are trying to look at different models for giving service to the customer throughout the item’s life,’ he added.

The initial focus of the study will be on the defence and aerospace industries, which the researchers have identified as calling for more single suppliers to manage the support of systems and, increasingly, for contracts based around the guarantee of a service, rather than the supply of spare parts.

BAE Systems first brought the issue to the IfM in 2003, when it asked the institute if it would form an education and research partnership to investigate the engineer’s relationship with the service sector. Jobs engineers may take up in this area range from service roles within manufacturing organisations to those at airports, in the health service and banks.

‘Many industrial powers are saying they are having to train people on the job, taking two or three years,’ said McFarlane. ‘They increasingly need to have skilled professionals in this domain available to work immediately.’

To this end, the researchers are working to develop a strategy to raise awareness of undergraduate students to their potential service sector jobs.

At the postgraduate level, they are developing full and part-time service-oriented masters courses; and devising training and applied education frameworks for industrial practitioners.

‘We are trying to say if you are going to merge the technical systems that BAE Systems, HP or Rolls-Royce would like to offer, with customer experience that Virgin Atlantic likes to offer, then we might have the ideal technical service in the long run,’ said McFarlane.

‘So we have topics that deal with technical issues of designing service, operational issues of running a service, softer issues of customer interaction, legal issues of contract design and management, and also human resource issues ranging from service culture to design of service organisations,’ he added.