Transferring knowledge

Consultants both large and small can provide additional expertise for companies with tricky design problems. Arlene Foster talks to two problem solvers

A brewer losing market share; a drug company seeking to make clinical trials more accurate; an aerospace firm needing couplings for high strength cables for its satellites. All these companies turned to outside consultants to help solve problems.

In this world, PA Consulting and Wren Engineering represent opposite ends of the size spectrum.

PA Consulting is a management information and technology consultancy which employs more than 2,000 people and has operations in more than 20 countries. It offers a range of services from helping companies with strategy, to improving IT, but its core service is problem solving. In an engineering design context it helps companies revitalise products, but its main focus is on developing next generation products.

`We’re just as much involved in the creation of opportunities for product development as product development itself,’ says Phil Seeney, a consultant based at PA’s Cambridge Technology Centre. Much of its new business arises from continuous relationships with its clients. `We like to understand not just the technology but the business aspirations of a company, hopefully merging the two.’

One case in point is a new generation of asthma inhalers which PA designed and developed for Glaxo-Wellcome.

Drug trials can be unreliable because of their dependence on the patient to provide accurate records. This hinders research, leads to extra trials and adds to costs.

PA was approached by Glaxo-Wellcome to devise an accurate way of collecting data from patients taking part in trials on a new drug formula for asthma sufferers. Because of the psychology involved in drug trials, where patients are not told if they are taking a drug or a placebo, it was important to retain the basic design of the inhaler. `The slightest changes to a familiar device can alter the way patients feel about the drug they are taking, which could interfere with the trial,’ says Seeney, who led the project.

Presented with this challenge, PA drew on its experience in the electronics industry, building miniature electronics into the inhaler without altering its basic shape. Low energy circuits, small high powered batteries, memory chips and a unique RS232 computer port form a unique microprocessor, small enough to be mounted on the back of the device, says Seeney. To save space only a very small piece of silicon was wired on to the circuit board.

Data from the microprocessor can be downloaded to a PC, giving doctors and drug companies the information they need. `It will give the company much more reliable information, so reducing time spent on clinical trial work, and could take a year off drug development time,’ says Seeney. The technology could also be transferred to monitor data in other clinical trials.

In this case PA had a prototype designed in Japan which it then reproduced at its Cambridge Technology Centre. Because of the comparatively low volume of inhalers needed for clinical trial work, manufacture for Glaxo is being performed by a UK company.

Development time in the project was just under 10 months. `Once we had identified the client’s problem, within a day and a half we had a provisional solution, compared with almost two years Glaxo had spent working with academic institutions to try to solve the problem.’

PA was able to provide such a rapid response, says Seeney, because of its wider exposure to technology than most universities or companies. This ability to take a known technology from one industry and transplant it in another, he says, is real innovation at work.

PA is also heavily involved in process development and has in-house facilities at Cambridge to reproduce production lines. These proved useful when it was designing and developing a `widget’ for Courage beers.

This is a device which sits at the bottom of a can and reproduces the traditional head on draught beer. Courage had been losing sales to Guinness and Whitbread because each had launched `widgeted’ canned beers.

PA not only invented a widget but developed a process for inserting it into the cans which it claims is the only such facility that does not slow down canning rates on the production line.

Using its Cambridge facilities, PA developed and tested an offline insertion process. Only after it was tried, tested and built up to the required canning rates was it reproduced and integrated into Courage’s own filling line.

Total development time was just under a year and PA’s involvement was critical in helping Courage’s John Smith brand to regain its market position within three months of launch, claims Seeney. `Our development costs were paid for in a matter of months on the back of the low production costs and high margins achieved by the product,’ says Seeney. `Once again business and commercial objectives were met.’

While PA regards the breadth and depth of its expertise as one of its major strengths, at the heart of the success of Wren Engineering, a small Somerset-based consultancy, is its in-depth experience in just two key industries – aerospace and defence. Based in Frome, Wren has modest manufacturing facilities and consists of a team of 20 people, including just three engineers from the aerospace and defence industries.

`One of our strengths is that we’re often able to understand our customer requirements better than they are,’ says John Cottle, Wren’s engineering director.

This quality he attributes to the training and background of his engineers. `Defence is an all-seeing industry, pulling experience from just about every element of engineering, and working to the highest performance standards. Our engineers have also developed strong analytical techniques for risk evaluation and are experienced in considering all the influences on and implications of a particular requirement.’

But Wren is not limited to defence. It has carried out successful operations in a range of sectors including marine, aerospace, oil and gas and automotive. Its main activities are fittings for the marine industry, rigs and test equipment and design and development work.

The business began in 1986 supplying lightweight, high strength aluminium `terminations’ or mechanical fixings used to secure rigging on yachts for sailing events such as the Admiral’s Cup. Within nine months of start-up however, the recession rapidly ripped the bottom out of this business and Wren very quickly had to change to survive. It did so by undertaking contracts for project engineering which has since become its core business.

At the heart of Wren’s success, as with PA, is an ability to transfer knowledge gained from one industry to another. `Quite unwittingly we’ve brought the working methods of the aerospace and defence industries into other areas,’ says Cottle.

Wren’s work in developing lightweight spike and cone terminations for kevlar cable is a good example of this skill.

Because of its high cost, kevlar cable is generally only used in weight critical applications. But to take maximum advantage of its strength, it requires a special fitting close to the strength of kevlar to connect or secure the cable.

Wren took an existing cone and spike coupling technique and modified it for use with kevlar. `What we did, that others did not, was to understand how the system worked and exploit it for other uses.’

Wren built a lightweight aluminium version, modified to provide a high coupling efficiency. The device has a coupling efficiency of at least one, which means it is equal to the strength of the cable itself.

First used in the rigging on racing yachts, the device came to the notice of Fokker Space Systems, which had peripheral interests in the boating industry.

Fokker manufactured solar arrays for satellites. It was looking for a device it could use with kevlar to secure solar panels, which are stowed on top of each other during launch. Wren adapted its device for use on the arrays.

Having gained certification for the terminations for space flight, many new applications arose for the product, including Zeppelin’s new series of airship. Wren designed kevlar tensioner systems, a network of tensioned kevlar cables, providing extra rigidity for the airship.

Projects in other sectors follow a similar pattern. Quick-release bolts developed for emergency release of loads and pipeline couplings in the offshore oil industry have found applications in the defence and construction industries.

Cottle believes that Wren’s main strength is its objective, baggage-free approach to problem solving. `We’re not trying to sell a ready-made solution to a problem. Rather, we aim first to fully understand the problem. That way the requirements will often provide a solution, which may not have seemed possible before.’