Melding of minds

TWI is at the forefront of research into joining, cutting and surfacing materials, a centre of expertise that, says Dr Christoph Wiesner, provided technology transfer long before the term was coined.

To the uninitiated The Welding Institute sounds like a rather unpromising place to hunt for a hotbed of world-leading technology. The name conjures images of a somewhat moribund outfit clinging to the coat-tails of the more downwardly mobile elements of the UK’s industrial base.

In fact TWI, to give it its correct title (The Welding Institute, the professional institution, is only one part of the organisation), is a leader in applied research into the diverse technologies involved in joining, cutting and surfacing materials.

It operates across a wide range of sectors: aerospace, defence, energy, automotive and electronics, to name but a few. And a handful of examples of its members from the aerospace sector alone dispels any notion that TWI is allied to the failing remnants of the past.

Airbus, Boeing, BAE Systems, Lockheed-Martin, GKN and Rolls-Royce are all signed up to what Dr Christoph Wiesner, TWI’s director of R&D, described as ‘basically a club. By joining you get access to the facilities and expertise here. It’s a bit like a golf club — you’ve paid the money upfront and it pays the green keepers and keeps the place going so you can use it when you want to.’

Wiesner, an amiable German, is responsible for creating the right mixture of what he describes as the ‘push and pull’ factors that dictate where TWI focuses its research activities. ‘We try to keep a balance of technology push, where we think some research is worth doing, and industry pull where the member says, for example, you should be looking into a new welding process for titanium alloys.’

TWI’s members can, and do, use it as a troubleshooting service. ‘Instant access to technical enquiries is an important part of the operation,’ said Wiesner. ‘People ring up and say I’ve got a problem, can you help. Once you are a member you can visit as often as you like and ring as often as you want. Luckily not everyone rings all the time or we would be a bit overwhelmed.’

TWI is, in fact, a full-blown working example of the type of high-tech market-focused centre of excellence the government is keen to build from scratch in various areas of the nation’s science and technology base.

As it is about to celebrate its 60th birthday TWI can hardly be described as new, but is certainly an interesting model for the development, commercialisation and transfer of technology within and across industries. If it didn’t exist, there would be a good case for inventing it. ‘That 60-year history is significant,’ said Wiesner. ‘There is a long tradition here of developing technology and transferring it to industry.

‘If you look back at some of the early membership magazines from the 1960s there are very good examples of technology transfer before anyone was really talking about the term. It was about making academic research results palatable for the welding engineer, and I think we keep that tradition up.’

Back in the mists of time TWI was one of the now mostly forgotten breed of British Research Associations, all of which ran as not-for-profit membership groups for companies from various sectors. ‘There were lots of those at one time, but most of them have given up the membership concept. We are one of the few, if not the only one, who retained it.

‘I believe there was a lot of discussion in the 1970s about whether we should give it up, and now we’re very happy we didn’t. It provides a lot of stability.’

That stability comes in part from removing the need to focus the often short-term pressures imposed by boards of directors and shareholders. ‘Our members own us, we don’t have shareholders. We don’t have the emotional roller-coaster that comes at the end of every quarterly period, and I think that makes for better governance and solid management.’

The membership model helps TWI in other ways, according to Wiesner. Like any successful club, the organisation has to be aware what its members want and need, and which way the wind is blowing regarding future trends.

‘Of course the R&D is influenced by the members. Recently the UK medical devices industry has been pretty strong, and that’s probably because the biotechnology base has been on the up. They are very good at the mechanisms of chemical reactions, but when they need to package the kit or join the plastic together the engineering aspect isn’t always that strong. We have developed a bit of a reputation that we can help them with that type of stuff.’

As well as the income from its members, TWI has proved adept at sourcing public funding from the UK and Europe to help its R&D work. Alongside its Cambridge headquarters the organisation operates technology centres in Middlesbrough, Wales and more recently Sheffield, where it is tapping into the city’s long tradition of metallurgy expertise.

Wiesner said the everyday interaction between its engineers and their counterparts at member companies pays long-term dividends. ‘Because we spend so much time talking to people, thousands of people each year, and going to conferences and seminars, whatever we do is inevitably informed by knowledge of the market. It’s maybe not something that pays off the next day but I think it does over time. It means there is almost always an application for a technology in mind. We’ve never really had the problem where we develop something and then don’t know what to do with it.’

Having said that, Wiesner is conscious of the need for what he describes as the odd piece of ‘maverick’ or ‘anarchic’ research. ‘For good innovation you need tolerance as well,’ he said.

Wiesner has a discretionary R&D fund to which TWI’s engineers and scientists can apply for enough capital to kick-start a project and see where it leads.

The organisation’s roster of technologies is impressive. One of the most significant, according to Wiesner, is friction stir welding, which emerged from TWI in the 1990s and is now used to engineer everything from Japanese bullet trains to rocket fuel tanks.

More recent innovations include Clearweld, a novel technique for joining clear plastics without forming an opaque bond; Vitresyn, a novel method for making transparent ceramic/polymer composite materials; and Surfi-Sculpt, an electron beam process for creating intricate surface features.

According to Wiesner, such developments will keep TWI’s strong reputation in the increasingly competitive global technology market. ‘There are competitors in every area in which we operate. In some we are pretty close to the leading edge, in others maybe in the upper middle ranks. But I don’t think there is any other organisation that has it all,’ said Wiesner.

He added that as well as its four sites in the UK, TWI is now establishing a presence in key markets abroad — in Iran, Brazil and south-east Asia. ‘Given our size I think we are very influential,’ claimed Wiesner. ‘This is a 500-staff organisation, and for a fairly small company that’s quite a step. But we think we are well connected and well reputed enough to make it.’