Mike Hughes heads to Teesside University to hear it is setting new standards for knowledge transfer partnerships.
The need for industry to work side-by-side with universities has been a long-standing principle in every region across the country, leading to huge benefits from the development of tailor-made training and skills that keep businesses at the cutting edge of their sectors.
This collaboration recognises the wealth of expertise and innovation on campus, from students and lecturers who are making breakthroughs that are moving from the lecture room and labs, to industries keen to develop game-changing new strategies and products.
Teesside University has been nationally recognised for the quality of its relationship with businesses, and is now a pioneer of high quality knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) that are helping small and larger companies improve their competitiveness and productivity.
Over recent years, 75% of its KTPs – typically lasting for two years and part-funded by Innovate UK – have been independently assessed as “Outstanding” or “Very Good” with 62% graded as “Outstanding”. Contrast that with national figures where 58% of KTPs achieve the top two grades and only 17% are graded “Outstanding” and the gap starts to become clear.
Every success at this level means a business is able to take a huge step forward using technology and knowledge that simply didn’t exist out in the market, but came from deep, focused, research from some of the brightest minds in the UK.
The key role of the University’s business partnerships was underlined in its digital blueprint for the region, which is becoming an essential catalyst for growth. Professor Jane Turner, pro vice-chancellor, enterprise and business engagement at the University, said among the key strategies forming the foundations for sustainable success were unlocking growth potential through digital innovation, transforming sectors with digital knowledge and providing businesses with the research and expertise they need to improve their competitiveness and preparing businesses for “Industry 4.0.”
Turner told BQ: “The continuous creation of new businesses and the scale-up of existing businesses is the lifeblood of any region. They help underpin our strength in new sectors and drive innovation and competitiveness in our existing industries, while a vibrant start-up economy will keep valuable talent and skills in the region.”
That innovation and competitiveness has been highlighted through four recent partnerships the University has completed, two of which – at PSI Global and Hodgson Sayers – have been classified as outstanding by Innovate UK. This rare accolade turns a national spotlight on the University’s expertise and its client-centred ethos and shows why businesses are queuing to take advantage of Teesside’s state-of-the-art facilities and skills.
At PSI Global, based in Bowburn, County Durham, the KTP was graded as “Outstanding” for its research into how advanced computer simulation can be used in product testing. PSI Global manufactures filters and separators for the compressed air and vacuum industries and the KTP will enable the company to reduce the time and labour used for product testing by up to 70%.
Lloyd Cochrane, technical manager at PSI Global, said: “The KTP has had an enormous impact on our company. Prior to this, we had to rely on physical prototyping and testing on a bespoke testing rig, which was extremely labour, time and cost intensive. We now have a system whereby early stage design of new vacuum pump systems can be trialled, improved and validated much earlier than previously possible by modelling the system virtually, prior to prototyping.
Dr Faik Hamad from the University’s School of Science & Engineering, said: “This was an extremely interesting project, which I am sure will have huge benefits for PSI Global. The findings from the research are already being utilised in teaching our students here at the University.”
Over at building and roofing specialist Hodgson Sayers, the KTP partnership has helped the company double its revenue – earning it another “Outstanding” rating.
The KTP has enabled the company, based in Stanley, County Durham, to develop a new range of patentable security doors after looking at ways in which building information modelling (BIM) strategies and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software could be integrated into its systems and processes.
By implementing BIM approaches – involving the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics – Hodgson Sayers has been able to operate much more efficiently and has been able to bid for much larger contracts, including valuable public sector contracts, as a tier one contractor.
The company’s financial director, Mike Wade, said: “The KTP has massively improved the company’s operations and has allowed a more collaborative and cross-generational acceptance and understanding, which has galvanised and quickened cultural change and encouraged more open thinking.”
Professor Nashwan Dawood, an expert in BIM from the University’s School of Science & Engineering, said the work would also have a lasting effect at the University: “This KTP has generated fascinating amounts of research and knowledge, particularly in the field of BIM for manufacturing (B4M). It has helped us develop case studies, which can be used in the teaching of both post-graduates and under-graduates and we will be expanding our teaching in the area of industry 4.0 in relation to design for manufacturing.”
The University has just finished two other highly successful projects at Billingham-based NYMAS, which manufactures bathroom and toilet equipment and at Stockton firm Hazard Detection Solutions (Hazdet).
NYMAS works with care homes, hospitals and the hospitality industry and worked with the University’s Schools of Science & Engineering and Design, Culture & the Arts on two knowledge exchange internships to research ways in which the company can streamline its systems and processes as well as developing new product designs and implementing new design processes.
Craig Anderson, NYMAS’ managing director, said: “The demographics of the population are changing and we’re seeing a lot more multigenerational homes with an increased need for specialist products to ensure their bathrooms are fully inclusive. As a company in order to meet the demands of this new market we need to function as efficiently as we can and we need our product to be more than purely functional but also have a quality design aesthetic.
“Working with Teesside University is helping us to achieve this and we’re looking forward to the benefits it will bring.”
At Hazdet, managing director David Orr said the KTP was “a great learning experience”, which had led to the development of a new and innovative product now being demonstrated to customers.
The company has drastically reduced the time it takes to carry out vital assessments of gas and fire detector coverage. By using computer games technology, Orr’s company, which works in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, can carry out detector coverage assessments in one week – a process which previously took up to 10 weeks.
The University has an unrivalled depth of knowledge that is making a huge difference to the region’s companies. As one of the experts collaborating on KTPs, principal lecturer Joao Ferreira gives an insight into the work he is doing.
Joao Ferreira is a principal lecturer (research & innovation) in the School of Computing, and is a leading expert in virtual reality, a key part of many technology strategies for the UK’s leading companies.
He said: “As a university, Teesside is committed to improving the current status of software reliability by developing innovative research, by transferring knowledge into industry, and by adequately training the next generation of software engineers.
“We have extensive experience working with companies, helping them with expert advice and helping them attract external funding to solve their software challenges. There is also a plan to launch a cyber security clinic that will provide cyber security services to the community. Services will include advice and security assessments on software safety and other security topics.
“The issue of effective software or a cyber security strategy for businesses may seem simple on paper, but getting the right software verification systems in place in the first instance can save a lot of future headaches. At Teesside, tools and methods have been developed that enable and support the construction of reliable, safe and secure software systems.”
Yifeng Zeng, a reader in the School of Computing, explains how the University is providing vital information for companies to help them make critical decisions and develop new strategies.
Zeng said: “I am currently involved in a KTP with a company that specialises in recording calls from businesses’ contact centres, providing clients with the ability to retrieve, score and analyse performance, to find ways to improve the customer experience of the service they deliver.
“By applying these principles to the customer experience market, we are looking to transform call-recording functionality via software that will help businesses to record and score every element of a call – from the agent’s tone of voice to time waiting on hold while a call is re-routed. That data will then be available for automatic retrieval and analysis.
“More and more of this type of work is expected in call or contact centres, with companies able to achieve new insights and learnings that would formerly have been invisible to the human eye.
“Businesses are increasingly keen to extract valuable information so they can use that knowledge to make predictions, optimise decisions and develop policies.
“This is particularly the case in the customer service industry, including call or contact centres, where organisations are seeking to improve the customer experience by investigating what and how their behaviour influences customer evaluations on their business.
“The technology behind these data extraction innovations is known as machine learning, which I’ve been researching for the past ten years. Machine learning has been used to develop driverless cars and effective web search among many other innovations, and is the science of getting computers to act without being explicitly programmed. It is believed by many researchers to be the best way to make progress towards human-level artificial intelligence.
“Customer experience is an important measurement of service and is said to be a transformation from customer-organisation interactions to the customer’s personal feelings on the interactions. With a wealth of data available in call or contact centres, text message and short-chats in existing social networking platforms, we aim to find a set of informative features that fully capture the quality of interactions, and then develop predictive models for customer experience improvement.”