The benefits of collaboration between universities and business are widely publicised.

National Centre Chief Executive Officer, Dr David Doherty, recently wrote that a healthy relationship between business, universities and Government is vital to long-term prosperity and well-being in the UK.

As a research engineer at Airbus Group whilst also undertaking an engineering doctorate at the University of Bristol, this relationship is something that I experience every day. Positioned with a foot in both camps of the academic and business worlds, it is evident that there can be some significant differences in priorities, goals and ways of working between the two. Involvement with the National Centre as part of the 50 under 30 Network is something that has also highlighted to me the importance and the role of these three entities working together. So when I was given the opportunity to work for Airbus Group on a Government funded project with Cranfield University and Loughborough University, I had a chance to see how this works in reality.

As we were aware of the challenges such as data sharing, intellectual property and communications, we decided to run an inter-organisational hackathon event. The five-day event was led by Airbus which brought university partners onsite at Filton. During this intensive week, the Data Hackathon event involved industry experts, leading academics, PhD students, research assistants and interns. It was an opportunity for university partners to be embedded within Airbus, to work with aerospace experts to collaboratively tackle a challenge. The Data Hackathon took place under the umbrella of an Innovate UK project aimed at developing ‘rapid, world-beating Wing Design and Integration capability and solutions’.

The term hackathon was first seen in the late 1990s and originated around programming. But since then many varieties have emerged and have gained popularity. The aims of our Data Hackathon were to share knowledge and expertise between the company and partnering universities, in a forum that facilitates open innovation and close working.

The task for our event, was to create a data-driven method to predict trends in the air transport system to identify which aircraft technologies will be favourable in the future. The challenge was presented at the beginning of the week based on an artificial scenario with representative data. It was this element that made the event possible since the high sensitivity was not in the type of data and problems encountered, but in the specifics. The process of creating realistic scenarios and representative datasets made a more close collaboration possible.

The participants were divided into inter-organisational teams to focus on specific areas of the problem. The overall challenge required the teams to work closely, and use a data-driven approach to develop a method to address the problem posed. Throughout the week there were guest presentations from within Airbus to expose the partners to wider work within the company. Then at the end of the week the teams presented their findings.

The work that was undertaken is now being taken forward for further development. The event was considered a strong success and has been nominated for two Awards for Excellence within Airbus.

On looking back at the event I can see how this two-way knowledge transfer was mutually beneficial. For Airbus, they were able to get some direct output from the result and learn from the knowledge coming from the universities. The academics were able to give a fresh perspective to the situation and bring a different set of skills to the problem. They were also able to take the knowledge and experience gained from working alongside industry experts, which will improve their skills. Most importantly, it helped align the goals and ambitions for the longer-term project and future collaboration.

Overall, it was a successful event to accelerate the progress of work and it proved to be an efficient method in stimulating innovation, providing an opportunity to challenge working assumptions and collaborate productively. I believe that it is through harnessing this collective intelligence that we can produce results that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. This paves the way for future Hackathon events to bring together experts from industry and academia in a forum allowing truly exciting, innovative and ground-breaking research to take place.

Hackathons are an efficient way of innovative working in a collaborative environment to foster a healthy relationship between business and universities supported by Government funding. I would certainly encourage others to run their own hackathon event to break-down mental and organisational boundaries, to collaboratively stimulate innovation for future growth.

Mark Hall MEng, CEng
Airbus Group Innovations
University of Bristol