Promoter of the materials world

Dr Bernard Rickinson intends to make the IoM the voice of materials engineering, says George Paloczi-Horvath

The Institute of Materials is set for a massive expansion over the next five to 10 years under plans drawn up by Dr Bernard Rickinson, its new chief executive.

Under these plans, the IoM could grow from 18,000 to 28,000 members in 10 years – a 35% increase. Rickinson certainly intends to make the institute a more visible and significant voice for materials specialists – a first point of call for anyone in the industry.

The man behind this ambitious agenda became the IoM’s chief executive last April. A Sheffield University graduate with a PhD in metallurgy, Rickinson is a materials specialist, with a career including work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1981 Rickinson joined Hot Isostatic Processing (HIP) in Chesterfield, Lancashire, and had a major role in raising its turnover tenfold to £3m by 1991, when he became managing director. In 1991 HIP was bought by Bodycote where Rickinson became operations director.

Rickinson now sits on the Foresight Programme’s Materials Panel. The IoM has set up its materials strategy commission to form a link with the panel, to which it has provided reports on materials in aerospace, electronics and coal-fired power stations.

‘The IoM believes Foresight has been quite effective, at least for helping larger companies to define their way ahead in materials developments,’ Rickinson says.

‘Where I think Foresight has yet to reach its full potential is to extend the supply chain down from those larger companies,’ he continues. ‘Smaller companies’ voices have not been fully heard yet and equally they have not been involved in their own Foresight activities, to feed back into the panels. I think small companies need to be involved in the thinking process, which has hitherto been dominated by a smaller fraternity.’

One of the ways in which the IoM helps the panel is through its Materials Information Service (MIS), a regional service with five full-time specialists in the UK who daily visit companies.

‘They can disseminate Foresight thinking through reports and workshops to generate useful feedback to the panels, so they can consider a wide view rather than just the narrow view of large companies,’ he says.

The IoM plans a consortium with other institutions to run the MIS, which Rickinson says is ‘a crown jewel of the institute because it reaches out to the very membership we’re trying to serve’. The institute bought the MIS from the Design Council in 1994. A Department of Trade and Industry grant for running the service has now ended and for 1996-97 the IoM has funded all MIS costs.

‘The IoM was therefore looking to see if other institutions had an interest in using the MIS, and it’s had a sympathetic response from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) Rickinson says.

The IoM is also now looking for industrial affiliates not directly related to the materials discipline. ‘That action is a great enabler to the Foresight programme in creating a feedback mechanism,’ Rickinson says. The IoM industrial affiliate scheme has been running for 18 months and includes 80 companies. This should rise to 300-350 firms within five years, Rickinson hopes.

But he worries over the quality of engineers leaving universities. The IoM provided input to the Engineering Council’s Sartor guidelines (Standards and Routes to Registration).

‘Industry is saying that you cannot get enough quality materials engineers,’ Rickinson says. ‘Is the supply of graduates properly balanced to the current needs of industry? One would have to say it wasn’t.’

The IoM wants to understand how A levels and graduate qualifications relate to each other, ‘but more importantly also to suitability for industrial life’. The IoM is now examining in detail the relationship between the output of graduates and industry satisfaction with those graduates and how that relates to their A levels. This research project follows on from three years of IoM research at several universities.

Because the IoM takes this issue so seriously, it has accredited various engineering departments in UK colleges and overseas and regularly visits them to ensure standards are up to scratch.

Rickinson says that, for now, there is an increased demand for materials engineers who therefore earn better salaries.

The conflict of interest between the Engineering Council and the institutions has been ‘resolved in part, but not entirely’. Rickinson believes the council should apply terms of reference that fully support the institutions, ‘rather than sometimes overlapping the very themes in which the institutions have been actively successful’.

Rickinson thinks in the early years ‘the council viewed from the institutions was considered to be somewhat predatory. That balance is swinging back.’ He defends the institutions against the view that they are old-fashioned.

‘Most institutions are earnestly trying to change and to become proactive.’ The council can play a role in enhancing the role of the engineer and improve media coverage of the profession, Rickinson says. ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity for us all to pull together with one voice there.’

To this end, Rickinson fully supports the Year of Engineering Success (Yes) initiative. ‘I think that’s been very successful, because it’s tried to reach out into regional activities and as a consequence brought about a realisation, particularly to young people, that engineering is something that is easy to touch and get enthusiastic about.’

He believes the initiative should last for longer than just 1997. Yes ‘has many qualities that should be continued. It would be sad to think the drive and momentum will be turned off’.

The IoM has 18,000 members, 14,000 in the UK and 3,500-4,000 overseas. Membership grew significantly when the institute merged with others covering ceramics, plastics and rubber in 1993.

Though Rickinson values Incorporated engineers and Engineering Technicians, there are only 1,000 in the IoM. Most members are Chartered engineers.

‘We believe we’re only touching a small fraction of our potential market and in five years’ time we are pitching at a total membership of 25,000, and in 10 years’ time I’d be disappointed if that hadn’t risen to 28,000,’ Rickinson predicts. ‘That is not being unrealistic, because the role of materials and materials engineering is absolutely fundamental in terms of taking design through to application.’

The IoM has a joint advisory board with the IMechE which will oversee overlapping fields of interest. The IoM and IMechE have ‘not yet fused any activities. A joint committee could be developed in the next six to nine months.’

Rickinson has ambitious plans for the IoM: ‘I would hope within the five year period that I was chief executive, it would become the voice of materials engineering, the first point of call for materials understanding, both from an industrial and professional point of view. It has the capability to do this. It has broad educational remits, it has publishing and conference educational activities, it has skilled engineers who understand the business.’