The National Structural Integrity Research Centre: keeping the UK’s infrastructure healthy

The National Structural Integrity Research Centre: keeping the UK’s infrastructure healthy

Collaborative working enables the sharing of excellence in science and engineering.

This case study originally appeared on page 40 the State of the Relationship 2014 report. The report outlines the state of university-business collaboration in the UK, featuring expert views and over forty case studies. Read the full report.

Thinking big and being bold were the hallmarks of the UK’s most brilliant engineer - Isambard Kingdom Brunel. These are also qualities that underpin the work of the university that proudly shares his name.

One of Brunel’s current major collaborations between academia and industry is the £30m National Structural Integrity Research Centre (NSIRC), due to open its doors in January 2015.

The NSIRC mission is to extend the working life of products, plants and the essential building blocks of civilisation. In a world underpinned by ageing infrastructure this work will become increasingly critical and of great practical importance.

“From oil rigs to aeroplanes, railway lines to power stations, metal fatigue, corrosion and wear are engineering enemies, explains the university’s Vice Principal, Professor Geoff Rodgers. “Traditionally the UK has been in the forefront of research into the design, service life and safety of products and structures but five years ago we were beginning to pick up the early warning signs that our lead in the field was under threat.”

“In addition, the pace of development of new materials is increasing. To safely unlock the potential of nanotechnology and other novel materials we need to understand them deeply or risk product failure or wasteful overdesign,” he adds.

Brunel University has a long history of collaboration with other universities and with industry, which it uses to help strengthen its students’ team-working and problem-solving skills that are fundamental to an engineer’s mindset.

This collaboration places the university in a strong position to reach out at senior level and address the engineering challenges that are facing UK plc. today.

For example, the university hosts the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Liquid Metal Engineering (LIME) in collaboration with Oxford University and Birmingham University. EPSRC-LIME enables Brunel to tap into other centres of structural integrity science excellence and present a ‘united universities’ front to industry.

Another pivotal relationship is the one that has grown up between structural integrity specialist TWI, a renowned research and technology organisation, and the Brunel Innovation Centre (BIC), which has a history of rapidly-moving research in areas such as ultrasound to real industrial applications with a strong emphasis on non-destructive testing. BIC operates with the aim of developing financially sustainable research that draws up the university’s existing strengths and complements the applied research and development activities of TWI.

The success of these aforementioned projects have supported the development of the NSIRC centre, says Professor Rodgers. “Without those strong foundations and relationships, the NSIRC project would not have got off the ground as quickly as it did or attract very significant sums of on going financial support from industry.”

The lessons learned as a result of these experiences have been valuable. For example, potential industry partners move at different cycles and at different speeds, which means working with a pool of potential partners is crucial.

“They will come into the project over time so it’s important to be pragmatic and accept that ‘not right now’ does not mean never,” says Professor Rodgers. “We would certainly like to achieve further collaboration and are already are working on a similarly large and ambitious industry and university project.”

For more information on the National Structural Integrity Research Centre, visit www.nsirc.co.uk

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