As part of Gordon Brown’s oft-repeated pledge to improve UK manufacturing’s productivity levels, the government is hoping to bring more innovation out of universities and into industry.
The UK’s universities are respected worldwide, and ministers hope to tap into this expertise to help increase the productivity of manufacturing firms throughout the regions.
To promote greater collaboration between academia and industry, the government likes to point to success stories, and one university department often singled out for ministerial praise is the Warwick Manufacturing Group. In the 20 years the group has been operating it has become so successful at collaborating with industry that it is now a model for other institutions to emulate, and a favourite of many multinational companies.
Alongside its successful research and teaching work, the group has established partnerships with some of the UK’s biggest engineering firms, including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and AstraZeneca, and works with companies in countries such as China and Malaysia. The group has managed to develop its own niche, with close links to academia and industry, and is highly respected in both fields.
This success can be seen in its latest agreement, for a long-term collaboration with Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, which includes Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin. It will involve co-operation on a wide range of important issues for PAG, including innovation and skills.
But what is it about the Warwick Manufacturing Group that makes it so successful and popular with engineering firms?
WMG has a reputation for finding innovative ways of working with government funding and other educational establishments on projects, says Paul Davies, director of business strategy at Land Rover. ‘Various people from the automotive industry are actually part of WMG, so unusually for an academic institution they also have quite a lot of links to the sector, and they have some good expertise,’ he says.
As part of the multimillion-pound agreement, WMG will work with PAG on issues such as management training, research and development, and the car firm’s supply chain. Luxury car makers need to go beyond conventional relationships with their suppliers and academia, and the partnership with Warwick will allow PAG to look at ways of making itself competitive for the next 20 years, says Davies. ‘To do that we have to lever the best we can from industry, from academia and from our suppliers, and we have to do it in such a way that it is going to be beneficial for all parties concerned.’
Some would question why PAG, as part of the Ford empire with its extensive resources, needs to develop such partnerships. But while Ford does offer the group access to a large amount of research, it is looking for something more, Davies says. ‘Of course applied research is something we can access from our parent company, but we are also looking at all the things that make a business competitive, including manufacturing processes, skills and training.’
The collaboration is expected to produce its first projects by next spring. Of areas being considered by the project teams, supply chain issues are likely to be the most serious in the long term, says Nick Matthews, principal research fellow at WMG. According to Matthews, 80% of every car is now produced not by the manufacturers themselves but by their suppliers, so quality pressures are tough.
Unless car makers have the quality in their supply chain to sustain the business, then no matter what they do with their 20%, they will not be able to survive, he says. ‘If someone is going to part with the best part of £100,000 for a car, you cannot afford to have any Friday afternoon versions. With the Germans and the Japanese producing very high-quality products in the same sector, you cannot afford to stand still.’
Project teams, drawn from both the company and WMG, will be set up to identify and work on specific projects, such as modernising PAG’s supply chain, and spreading to its suppliers the knowledge and expertise built up within the group. Researchers will look at issues such as virtual collaboration and design, and joint design of components and subsystems, says Matthews. ‘If you look at what is going on in Formula One and at the very high end of the sector, there are some amazing uses of new materials and computers, so you need suppliers who are up with that, are with you in the development stage and understand where you are going.’
The longstanding relationship WMG has had with Land Rover will make it easier to identify particular projects. Individual Land Rover engineers are now so familiar with Warwick’s researchers they will phone them if they come across a technical problem, and Matthews hopes similar relationships will soon be developed across the other firms within PAG.
Since its creation WMG has developed its own niche somewhere between academia and industry and, unlike some universities, it has become adept at producing both research papers and commercial work for businesses, says its director, Professor Kumar Bhattacharyya.
The group was created in 1979, after the damning Finiston Report into engineering education found graduates were completely mismatched to the needs of industry. Bhattacharyya, then director of the Lucas Manufacturing Centre at Birmingham University, agreed to set up the group at Warwick, with the aim of training engineers to meet the demands of manufacturing more closely. It was partnered by Lucas, GKN, Short Brothers, British Leyland and Rolls-Royce.
Bhattacharyya recruited a wide range of experts, including engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, sociologists and economists – but made sure each had industrial experience. ‘If companies are going to put their money into something,’ he says, ‘they want results on time and within budget, and universities are not traditionally very good at that.’
WMG has a successful fundamental research team, producing work that often acts as a springboard for its industrial projects. But all blue-sky research has to be paid for somehow, so the group has to operate as an ordinary business if it is to generate the revenue it needs. This means its researchers do not have the long holidays of their counterparts in other academic departments. ‘The university cannot fund this sort of thing (government funding does not allow for it), so we have to be self-financing to earn our keep,’ says Bhattacharyya.
Some would question whether this system of funding through collaboration with companies could lead to a conflict of interest between the academic and industrial areas of its work. Firms often need a quick solution to a problem that offers little academic challenge, while the research teams naturally want to be working on interesting long-term projects.
Bhattacharyya insists the group is able to resist these commercial pressures, as WMG makes enough money to allow it the luxury of choosing the projects it undertakes. ‘We will not take on what we consider straightforward consultancy – if companies want that they should go elsewhere. What we will take on are things that are more challenging, where there is a large amount of intellectual work required.’
This means the group’s services do not come cheap, he admits. ‘Companies have to pay the full price for working with us, so people only come here because they want excellence.’
But as many of the firms working with the group have done so since its infancy, and the work often covers all areas of their business, from recruitment, training and technology to their organisational structure, they are very loyal in return. ‘The majority of companies we work with want us to survive and survive well,’ says Bhattacharyya. ‘We have wonderful partnerships with firms worldwide, and all our partners, even though they have been through all sorts of restructuring processes, have stayed with us because the partnership is stronger than individual people.’
So if the group has almost become an autonomous business, why not just set up shop as an independent, profit-making organisation? Bhattacharyya believes he has the best of both worlds, as the group’s strength lies in its constant stream of fresh students and staff generating new lines of research, whereas technology firms have to take whatever contract work they are offered. Being part of a university also means WMG takes its social responsibilities to the region seriously, so the team considers issues such as long-term job creation and security, and environmental sustainability when getting involved in new projects. Local firms are also encouraged to use its website or visit the centre. ‘We never really make any money out of this kind of work, but sometimes we just do it for the challenge,’ he says.
The group’s relationship with large multinational companies is changing. Despite its reputation, no one at WMG believes they have the answers to all technical or business problems, but they usually know someone who does.
This is where Bhattacharyya sees the group’s future, as globalisation means firms now want it to take responsibility for managing all their worldwide learning needs.
WMG already runs a dedicated MSc for telecommunications firm Marconi, and trains its staff in the UK, Italy, Australia and the US. But as it does not have particular expertise in photonics, it brings in modules from Imperial College and Cambridge, Southampton and Lancaster Universities. For WMG, with its understanding of the academic system, it is far easier to locate and manage the best expertise than it would be for Marconi itself.
It is this ability to adapt quickly that has made the Warwick Manufacturing Group so successful at working with industry, Bhattacharyya believes. Many more universities will have to adopt a more businesslike approach like this, and develop a greater understanding of how modern industry works, if the government’s aims for greater collaboration are to be achieved. ‘Companies are no longer prepared to pay twopence here and fourpence there, to somebody who has given them a nice dinner,’ says Bhattacharyya.
Sidebar: Warwick Manufacturing Group and the business of education
Unlike most standard business schools, which treat all companies (engineering or retail) in the same way, the Warwick Manufacturing Group teaches people only from technology-driven organisations.
Along with Cambridge University engineering department’s Manufacturing Leaders programme, Warwick runs masters’ degrees targeted at people in manufacturing and engineering.
The group believes that managing engineering businesses, which create value through their technology, differs from running all other types of firm, and this is reflected in its courses, says Sheena Robertson, industry programmes manager at WMG. ‘Our programmes are designed in collaboration with industry to ensure they are always relevant, and all the people on the courses are from engineering and manufacturing, so they are always interacting with people from the same sectors.’
But despite the name, Professor Bhattacharyya insists Warwick Manufacturing Group concentrates on engineering and technology firms, rather than traditionalmanufacturing businesses. ‘The name manufacturing arose because when we were formed the big problem within UK industry was manufacturing, and if we had called ourselves a business school people would have questioned what we knew about building cars or aircraft. So in order to make sure we were targeted well, we housed ourselves in the department of engineering,’ Bhattacharyya says.