Carl Perrin explains why the UK’s first ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’ is changing the way we train our future engineers and commercialise new technologies
Sometimes you have to do things differently if you are going to tackle long-running issues, especially if they appear to be getting worse not better. This was the initial grain of the vision behind the birth of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), a £32m collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing.
The idea was simple. We needed to find a way of creating more industry-ready graduates that would have an immediate impact when entering employment and start to help firms bridge the much-maligned skills gap. At the same time, we had to reverse the ‘brain drain’ faced by the UK, where a lot of our bright ideas were actually being commercialised by other countries.
But how do we even start to go about that? Let’s start with the training side.
The conventional Degree wasn’t working, there was too much time in the classroom and not enough on the shopfloor, where important theory would have to be implemented alongside the everyday pressures of lead times, working with different personalities and managing customer expectations.
John Latham, Vice Chancellor of Coventry University, and Unipart Manufacturing’s Carol Burke believed they had a possible answer by bringing industry and academia together to create the UK’s first ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’. This concept would train the engineers of the future to Degree level at a state-of the-art manufacturing hub, as well as using the same facility and collaboration to further R&D and offer support to the UK supply chain.
It wasn’t all plain sailing and there were certainly a lot of people cautious about the suitability of a University and manufacturer working together…not always the most natural of bedfellows.
However, HEFCE and its catalyst fund thought differently, awarding the partnership £7.9m – over five years – to turn the vision into reality.
Five years on
Fast forward to 2019 and we have recently seen our second cohort of AME students achieve their BEng degrees, a major milestone in our progress and additional evidence that the ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’ approach has worked.
So far, 34 students have graduated since we launched, with 95 per cent securing employment with major engineering employers, including Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), Precision Castparts Corp, Unipart Manufacturing and Wipact Ltd. Another ten have continued with their studies, with two of our students achieving their Masters.
The overwhelming feedback has been positive, especially the experience-rich curriculum, which gives young people 200 hours per semester working on live manufacturing projects ranging from process improvement and problem solving to prototyping and product introductions.
All of this has been carried out at AME’s 1700 sq metre manufacturing hub that offers the very best in teaching environments and a shopfloor that is crammed full of state-of-the-art technology, including robotics, metrology, 3D Printing and laser welding.
This is located on Unipart Manufacturing’s site in Coventry, yet the student experience is not restricted to that location. In fact, some of our budding engineers have completed international placements, with the most notable being with Subaru in the United States. You just can’t buy that experience and it’s a major positive on a young person’s CV as they start out in the early stages of their career.
We have recently taken on our fifth cohort, taking the total number of students to well over 100. There was even a waiting list this year, which shows the appetite for what we are trying to do.
Making R&D pay
The HEFCE funding was a fantastic start for AME and gave us the impetus and financial power we needed to create the hub and teaching platforms so quickly. However, for the Institute to be sustainable we needed to find ways that generated revenue.
It quickly became clear that the best means of doing this was to tap into the different, but complementary strengths of the two partners…Coventry University could bring the knowledge and the academic expertise and Unipart Manufacturing the engineering experience and the projects that require a
This has been a stunning success. Over the last five years, we have proven that AME has end-to-end capability to deliver from concept to design, manufacture and into production.
More than 15 different projects have been completed, securing in excess of £10m of funding. Highlights so far have included a new lightweight exhaust for Aston Martin that has generated in excess of £1m of orders and an innovative fuel rail for the Ford Fox engine.
In more recent developments, AME has played a role in the creation of Hyperbat, a consortium of Williams Advanced Engineering and Unipart Manufacturing Group to create a new factory to produce batteries for future hybrid and electric vehicles.
Alicia Prior, one of our first graduates, is involved more than most after securing a Project Management job at the new venture.
The Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering has received widespread recognition over the last three years, securing a number of prestigious awards, national press articles and international best-practice visits from organisations in Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Italy and Japan.
It has been heralded as the approach the UK needs to take and we genuinely believe it could be the blueprint that is needed to change the way higher level skills training and R&D is delivered going forward.
Just a few miles down the road in Coventry, lessons learned at AME are helping drive the creation of The Centre for Advanced Low-Carbon Propulsion Systems (C-ALPS), a £50m collaboration between Coventry University and global engineering specialist FEV.
This will harness cutting-edge academic and commercial expertise to drive new propulsion technology, focusing on the evolution of electric, hybrid and combustion engine development across the automotive, aerospace, marine and rail sectors.
The 40,000 sq ft world class independent centre in Coventry will be the focal point of activity and houses some of the most advanced electrification test bed facilities currently available in the UK – all geared towards creating cleaner mobility.
It is safe to say this is just the start for AME. We are not resting on our laurels and already have in place new funding from Coventry & Warwickshire LEP to launch the £5m AME 2, extending our capabilities in state-of-the-art digital manufacturing and materials analysis equipment.
The new building will house additional robotics, automation, digital technologies, laser processing and surface engineering – all designed to enhance research and teaching capabilities that will drive increased productivity.
The project is work in progress; what is set in stone is the appetite for greater collaboration between industry and academia and that has to be a good thing.