Industrialists worrying about how to improve their links with academia would do well to look at the experiences of Dr Julia King and Rolls-Royce.
Sixteen years as an academic researcher and university lecturer provided an ideal grounding for King to join Rolls-Royce’s senior management – proving an exception to the rule that university and industrial life do not mix.
King, 42, who joined the company in 1994 as head of materials in the aerospace business, is now embarking on her biggest challenge so far. As director of advanced engineering for Rolls-Royce Industrial Power Group, she has a relatively small team but a big task: to spot and help the businesses develop the key technologies to move forward.
The group, with its high profile sale of Parsons Power Generation Systems now complete, faces radical changes in the engineering needs of its customers and King’s Advanced Engineering Centre aims to help the individual businesses win and maintain a technology edge.
For King it is the first move away from her specialist skills – her academic life and first job at Rolls-Royce centred on materials science. Now she is learning the technology and the business of the industrial power group, with its £1.2bn turnover and 17,500 employees.
There are four business areas: industrial and marine power including aero-derivative gas turbines; electrical transmission and distribution; materials handling including ports systems; and nuclear engineering including environmental management and marine propulsion.
`Rolls-Royce has identified where in the power systems business it is going to be a key player and that is going to be up to around 150MW generating capability. The engineering centre is a core part of the industrial power group’s task of refocusing its business,’ says King.
`We are closely involved with the business development and engineering activities in all the businesses. We want to also exploit the systems synergies across the businesses: for instance there is a very strong synergy between the industrial and marine power business and transmission and distribution to meet changing customer requirements and develop power systems for the future,’ she says.
The engineering centre began work 18 months ago – with a brief to tap into the changing customer demands.
When the electricity industry was publicly owned, the Central Electricity Generating Board designed its systems, knew what it wanted and gave detailed specifications to suppliers. But following privatisation, customers want to specify in less detail and have a complete system delivered. `That is becoming a characteristic right across our customer range. They are not interested in the detail and specifying the bits. They say what they want a system to do for them and increasingly they want the system to offer more sophisticated things at a business level.’
In the future King expects there will be people buying into power who will see it as just a way of making money and they will want suppliers who offer complete solutions.
Deregulation in the US is another spur to change with smaller power providers which again will have less specialised engineering skills.
`We want to be in at the systems suppliers level. We don’t want to be just supplying components into other people’s systems. It is important to be higher up the food chain,’ says King.
Part of the engineering centre’s job is technical and economic studies of new system concepts, modelling and understanding where customer thinking is going. Keeping a watch on new technology developments which could impact on the businesses is also high on the list.
Fuel cells are one of the areas under study – looking at their potential as part of very clean power systems for the future. `You might put them into a combined cycle plant with a gas turbine which can offer potentially 70% efficiency, compared with levels up to 45% for current small plant, and have very low emissions which in areas of the US is crucial,’ says King.
Another early project involved developing computational intelligence based tools for analysing data.
`There will be a lot of issues around control systems and we want to make them increasingly intelligent, which will help us optimise plants. Once again there are applications for computational intelligence in both optimising a port system and optimising a power generation system,’ she says.
Another role is to develop young staff, who come into the centre for two to three years and then move back out into the business.
`One of our roles is to develop the synergies and relationships between the IPG companies by moving staff out of one area into another and developing staff who have an overview of the potential common interests of the company,’ says King.
She plans to keep the engineering centre small – it has 14 staff now – and to concentrate on working in teams with the individual businesses. Extra resources will come from a new University Technology Centre which opens this summer at Strathclyde University, concentrating on the power group’s work. Four research staff are already working on Rolls-Royce projects and King expects that to increase.
`University Technology Centres are one of Rolls-Royce’s notable involvement with universities,’ she says. `It is an excellent example of what companies can do. It gives university departments a long term rolling funding commitment and allows a team to develop which gets to know a network in Rolls-Royce and understands the business drivers,’ says King.
The company has 14 UTCs as collaborations with world class universities in key technology areas, set up by the main board engineering and technology director Phil Ruffles.
King’s conversion from academic to industrialist was slow and steady but is now complete. She says the final push towards industry was the pressure on academics – for example through the Research Assessment Exercise – to have readily countable deliverables, such as the numbers of papers being published.
`There was an orientation towards academic journals which were reputed to have very high academic standards. But I was beginning to see that those were not the journals that my colleagues in industry were ever going to read and I felt it was in danger of pushing universities away from industry,’ she says.
`I was beginning to feel a bit cynical. I felt as if we were being pushed to do so-what research. I could see much of the work was not going to be applied,’ she adds.
Her relationship with Rolls-Royce began with a research fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge, to investigate how to optimise fatigue performance in a nickel-based turbine disc alloy.
`It was in the early days of understanding the microscopical effects on fatigue crack propagation, looked at from a fracture mechanics point of view. So it was an exciting time, people were just beginning to work on fatigue thresholds and that was where a lot of my work was based. It was an opportunity to put the microstructural understanding into crack propagation rates and understand how you might optimise the design of an alloy for fatigue crack propagation resistance.
`When I joined Rolls-Royce many years later I could see how some of that work is being used now in some of the aerospace group’s disc alloy development programmes. I can see the impact of what we did.’
After lecturing at Nottingham University, she got the first Royal Academy of Engineering senior research fellowship and ran a research group collaborating with British Gas looking at structure of materials: from pipeline steels to polymer composites with potential applications on offshore structures.
`British Gas had a very forward looking view of that research group – it was interested in how the research tied into its own programmes and how it might be exploited, and in the benefits of strong links with a university.’
King’s final project in academia was to set up one of Rolls-Royce’s UTCs on nickel-based alloys, before joining the company full-time in its aerospace business.
`When I came to move it was surprisingly easy. I had been sitting on one side of a fence talking about how important it is to interact with people on the other side, and suddenly the other side offered the opportunity to see what it is really like. I felt as if I couldn’t say no,’ she says.
She says too that her motivation in universities had moved from the very early enthusiasm for discovering `things’ to doing research which would make a difference and which people would use.
It was unusual for Rolls-Royce both to bring someone in from outside to run its materials function and to appoint someone from academia. The department King ran had about 200 people working in research and development: the application of materials to engines being designed, and offering support to engines in development and in service.
`My teaching experience gave me a strong background in the fundamentals. At Rolls-Royce I did not need to be the person who kept up with the latest specialist development – the specialists are extremely good at doing that. My role was often asking the simple questions because I had a physical understanding of the work,’ she says.
`There was a real product requirement pull for the research – having someone really need what you are doing is wonderfully motivating.
`R&D in the key materials like the nickel-based alloys for the high temperature turbine blades involves development of the next generation of materials. We are such a niche market for those sorts of materials we can’t just wait for the materials suppliers to come along with a new alloy for us.’
Just two years later, King moved even further from her roots.
`In the aerospace group I was still in my field of specialism, but any further move within the company was going to be out of that area. To move further in an engineering role I was going to have to broaden either across to a much stronger engineering understanding of the aeroengine side or to get a broad overview of industrial power related engineering activities,’ she says.
Coming from a family of academics and teachers, King says her ambition from the age of 12 was to be a professor. Now she doesn’t hesitate to call herself an engineer.