Strong ties between industry and academia are a key part of any nation’s intellectual capital. University spin-outs are a welcome source of innovation, for example, while industry commonly looks to academic researchers to explore specific technical challenges. Nonetheless, still closer ties potentially represent an opportunity to foster far more significant advances.
Earlier this year, the British Pump Manufacturers’ Association (BPMA) forged a formal alliance with Lancaster University. The mutual cooperation agreement is primarily geared toward both building improved skills and enhancing technology development.
Leading the initiative is George Aggidis, professor of energy engineering at Lancaster University, who has actively maintained strong links with the industry since he started his career with pump manufacturers. He allows Lancaster to bridge the gap between industry and academia.
He explains: “I ensure our graduates are familiar with pumps and pumping technology, as well as specific examples of pump applications.” Student teams typically work on a ‘real’ problem posed by a company or other external organisation, with a recent example including the further development of a pump with no moving parts. “Here in Lancaster, I still do a lot of work for industrial partners through my students,” Aggidis says. “It is something that can be seen through academic outputs.”
Mechanical, chemical and nuclear engineering, electronics, mechatronic and renewable energy students are all versed in pumping principles, and as they become postgraduate students, it’s through university projects that they further explore pumps and pump applications. Mechanical engineering students, for example, will explore energy applications, while chemical engineering will explore applications as they relate to the process industries. As undergraduates, some students will be working on pump-related projects for their final year projects. Bigger research projects may be taken on by postgraduate and PhD students.
“Professors like myself and others would also be able to advise industry, for example, where perhaps that expertise might not be available within their own company. It’s a cheaper way of coming up with answers that they need,” says Aggidis.
Moving from an ad hoc relationship built largely from Aggidis’ personal interests, a more formalised agreement with the BPMA has now been established. He explains: “We have managed to come up with a number of projects through the years, but less than a year ago, it was decided to formalise the relationship.”
Under the new agreement, members of the BPMA needing, for example, expertise in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) can reach out to Lancaster to explore potential opportunities for research or testing. It’s a service that is available for BPMA members to solve their engineering problems but also represents additional funding opportunities for Lancaster.
Gary Wilde, technical services officer at the BPMA, points out the potential advantages of the relationship for BPMA members: “We’d thought about increasing our exposure working with universities. Obviously, Lancaster have to do this as a commercial project, but if any of our members wanted, say, a PhD student who also wanted experience, BPMA members could potentially sponsor one of Lancaster’s students.”
Lancaster is also equipped with some of the country’s most sophisticated engineering tools. As Wilde notes: “If members, for example, wanted to design a completely new pump, they’ve got 3D printing machines that can print in 316 stainless steel, titanium or cobalt. Recreating an impeller or redesigning an impeller made out of exotic materials would be actually done on the commercial basis.” Access to specialist prototyping equipment represents potential savings for commercial enterprises without the budget to set up a full-blown R&D department. More generally, the alliance also supports professional development for pump engineers already working in the industry, as well as those aspiring to enter the sector.
Under the terms of the agreement, the two bodies are also exploring additional content to strengthen the BPMA’s existing range of training courses. Says Wilde: “We can tie in the training aspect for any students by offering our training courses. We do a series of training courses from the basic fundamentals like fluid dynamics right through to advanced courses.”
BUILDING A FUTURE RELATIONSHIP
While the alliance already offers a number of benefits for BPMA members, Lancaster also gains advantages. As Aggidis explains: “The best way to take this forward is that if, let’s say, industry has specific needs in relation to pumps and pumping, it will be nice to pass it to the BPMA and back to me.
“We can develop a portfolio of projects and ideas that are out of the bottom drawer of engineers and industry because they don’t have time to deal with it. If the project is something that is not too time-consuming or difficult, I could easily pass it through undergraduate projects. We tick the box for the students as far as their education is concerned and at the same time it would tick the box of the industrial partners, without the cost.”
The university is also evaluating the scope for funded collaboration across a range of technologies pertinent to pump systems engineering that will form the bedrock of the arrangement. Says Aggidis: “[For] more involved projects that may require more time, we could look into a master’s by research, which could take two years or a PhD, or other involvement depending on the needs of the application.”
He continues: “If we need to put some resources in place to solve the problem, then obviously we would need some finance to fund that.” Even so, funding academic researchers is expected to be a cheaper solution for industry because they will be paying a masters or a PhD student rather than a fully-qualified and experienced engineer.
Closer ties between industry and academic institutions are also expected to bolster the industry within the UK. As Wilde says: “There’s not a lot of people coming into the industry, which is a major problem for our members in terms of recruiting new staff. There’s not enough focus on people going in to the pumping industry.”
He adds: “We would like to encourage more students and other universities to get involved with what we’re trying to do within the industry to get all people involved, the opportunities are endless.”
By allowing students to address real-world industry challenges, the pump industry anticipates that the pool of potential recruits will expand, and that the overall quality of candidates will improve too, based on their real-world experience obtained as an undergraduate or post-graduate student.
“My students deal with real-world dynamic projects; they never do the same project twice and are always working on something new or on the next step of solving a problem,” says Aggidis. “By aligning the respective strengths of engineering academia and commercial enterprise, jointly-delivered ‘added value’ services can be determined for the mutual benefit of members, students and stakeholders alike.”
Indeed, with this ground-breaking initiative, Lancaster and the BPMA are perhaps giving lessons to other engineering disciplines that might adopt a similar approach to addressing the challenges of recruitment, training and engineering advances.