Do the big shots call the shots?

July 17, 1998

Industry giants put millions of pounds into university research, but what do they expect in return? The THES spotlights three of the big spenders. The aero-engines and industrial power systems maker is revving up to expand its university research abroad. Kam Patel looks at the British end

Rolls-Royce, the Derby-based maker of aero-engines and industrial power systems, is planning to expand its network of special university research centres overseas.

The company already backs 16 university technology centres in Britain. Each provides academic expertise in technology identified by the company as vital for long-term global competitiveness.

Chris Moore, head of technology strategy at Rolls-Royce, says the need to expand the company's university network overseas reflects expanding global interests, which include ownership of United States-based engines company Allison and joint aerospace ventures with BMW in Germany and ITP in Spain. (Rolls-Royce is completely separate from the car-maker of the same name, now owned by Volkswagen.) Dr Moore said: "There is clearly a need to extend our university networks around these three interests. There is range of expertise around the world which is complementary to our academic activities in the United Kingdom."

The first of Rolls-Royce's UTCs were created following a survey nine years ago on company-sponsored research in universities. The study found projects sprawled across many institutions, some of them of "sub-critical" value.

It was Philip Ruffles, now Rolls's director of engineering and technology who decided, on the basis of the survey, to focus the company's university research programmes in fewer, larger academic centres, each of which would have a long-term business agreement with the firm.

The universities of Oxford, Cambridge, York, Strathclyde and Imperial College, London boast Rolls-Royce UTC status. At Cambridge a group led by Colin Humphreys is helping the company develop the next generation of nickel-based alloys and new high-temperature materials for turbine blades, discs and nozzle guide vanes. These components operate in the hottest parts of the aero-engine where metal temperatures can reach 1,200oC in a hostile, corrosive environment.

David Knowles, assistant director of the Cambridge UTC, says the centre focuses on the development of quantative design tools for the microstructure and properties of nickel-based alloys using various modelling techniques, including computers. The work should improve existing nickel-based alloys, speed up their development and improve processing and manufacturing routes so that scrap and reworking of components can be reduced.

The centre opened in 1994 with a five-year Pounds 1.25 million grant from Rolls-Royce. This has since rolled over annually. It collaborates heavily with another research group dedicated to developing computer modelling techniques for designing and optimising high temperature material. Some 30 staff contribute to the UTC's work.

Despite its high-profile status, Dr Knowles says there has recently been a problem in recruiting high-flying postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. "I think the main reason is salaries. Researchers can earn more - sometimes a lot more - and have more job security in industry than in academia. In universities they are effectively short term. I think the problem is being exacerbated by the fact that the industry jobs market has been relatively healthy for some time," he said.

John Kelly, Rolls-Royce chief of university liaison, says that UTCs initially focus on a core of company-sponsored work aimed at solving medium-term problems. As they mature they take on both shorter and longer term projects, often in collaboration with other UK or European partners.

Dr Kelly said: "UTCs are seen not just as sites for out-sourcing Rolls-Royce research but integral components of the company strategy for recruitment, training and continuing professional development of both company and university staff and students."

Dr Kelly says there is a "glow of satisfaction" about the way the UTCs have fulfilled their promise. But he added: "There is inevitably a need for a more objective assessment of the UTCs' performance and the real contribution they make to the company's future."

Researchers at Nottingham University are doing a two-year project for the company looking at not just the achievements of the UTC academics, but also the technology transfer process. It will later benchmark the UTC model against alternatives in the UK and elsewhere.

For Rolls-Royce, UTCs now deliver the lion's share of the company's university-funded research. Pointing to the company's hopes to extend the network overseas, Dr Kelly says that it can only be carried forward at the expense of internal company research: "A careful balance of internal and external expertise must be maintained if the technology transfer process is to be optimised. One way of making money go further is to invite other companies to become partners in new or existing UTCs. The firms are likely to be either suppliers to or customers of Rolls-Royce."

ROLLS-ROYCE UTCS - STATUS AT JUNE 1998

RR-funded UTC formally Research field University site

research since operational from

1978 January 1990 Solid mechanics Oxford

1965 October 1990 Vibration Imperial College

1964 March 1991 Combustion Loughborough aerodynamics

1970 April 1991 Compressor, turbine Cambridge (Whittle

powerplant aerodynamics Lab)

1989 July 1991 Combustion processes Cranfield

1970 October 1991 Titanium-based materials Birmingham and

Swansea

1985 July 1992 Computational fluid dynamics Oxford

1969 October 1992 Heat transfer and aerodynamics Oxford

(Osney lab)

1986 October 1993 Control and systems engineering Sheffield

1993 October 1993 Systems and software engineering York

1978 April 1994 Nickel-base materials Cambridge

1977 October 1994 aerothermal systems Sussex

1993 January 1997 Power engineering Strathclyde

1970 April 1997 Mechanical transmission systems Nottingham

1989 January 1998 Performance Cranfield

1985 October 1998 Materials damping technology Sheffield

The Pounds 50 million research laboratory at Cambridge University is Microsoft's single biggest academic R&D expenditure outside the United States

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