For decades, Rolls-Royce has collaborated with experts from academia, progressing the science and understanding that underpins its product base in fiercely competitive global markets.
A little over ten years ago I led a small group tasked with increasing the impact of our academic partnerships in materials research – just one area of our research portfolio – to find a way to provide stability for the key researchers, develop emerging talent, coordinate across multiple research groups, and make sure the excellent scientific work made a notable difference to both the company and the UK.
One of the things we ended up with became known as the ‘Materials Strategic Partnership’. Now that the programme has come to the end of its maximum ten-year life, I look back on what was achieved and the importance of collaboration for the future.
In 2009 Rolls-Royce and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) agreed a proposal covering ‘metallic systems for gas turbines’ initially with 3 university partners, Cambridge, Birmingham, and Swansea. It was to be a programme worth up to £50m if it proved successful. I think it was unique at the time in incorporating such a variety of elements at such scale, funded equally by EPSRC and Rolls-Royce with additional contribution from the universities themselves. There was a major post-doctoral programme, a cross-university PhD training programme, outreach, and significant collaboration with supply chain companies and other universities. It continually expanded the range and scale of activities.
Much credit goes to EPSRC for entertaining the idea, and subsequently for making such a commitment alongside the partners. The consortium was to be held to the same rigorous standard of peer review, regular assessment including several ‘mid-term’ and international bench marking exercises and formal governance as any other ESPRC programme. And of course it attracted the additional attention from the other industrial and academic stakeholders! One can now see echoes of the concept in EPSRC’s Prosperity Partnership funding model, and if the UK is to reach its R&D target of 2.4% GDP, then I believe it is critical that these co-investment models can be made to work alongside other activity such as responsive-mode funding.
So, was it a success?
The programme patented new super-alloys, now destined for the uniquely inhospitable environment of the jet engine, trained around 180 PhDs, won awards including The Engineer Magazine’s ‘Collaborate to Innovate’ award and the Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining (IOM3) Gold medal for ‘outstanding academic contribution to industrial materials’. Almost 100% of the graduating students went directly into employment, and saw the students win several individual IOM3 awards. It engaged multiple other academic institutions including Oxford, Manchester, Sheffield, and worked closely with industrial organisations including Timet, dstl, and TWI.
It developed world-leading understanding of advanced materials, essential if the UK is to retain its leading position in the global aerospace market, but also applicable to other sectors. Hundreds of peer-reviewed papers were published, including special editions of MDMI’s materials Journal. Conferences gave the students the chance present their work and meet some of the world leading specialists in their field, but more importantly the opportunity for the more “established” folk to learn from the quite exceptional emerging young talent! The research features in Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact case studies, both in 2014 and planned for REF2021.
The person who did much of the hard work coordinating the programme at Rolls-Royce, Dr Justin Burrows, is now a Royal Society Industry Fellow, and many other staff, students and academics have gone on to leadership positions and rewarding careers in many organisations. A novel PhD training programme allowed doctoral students to study modules at whichever partner university was best suited to deliver it, supported STEM outreach, and we developed a very successful relationship with one of the leading science podcasters, The Naked Scientist, to help us better engage with the public.
And for the future?
We face an increasingly uncertain world, and the UK’s place in it is at a critical juncture. As the whole world addresses the immediate global pandemic, the challenges of bringing next generation technologies to market that meet or exceed the Zero Carbon targets remain. Indeed, they are more pressing than ever. Hybrid power systems, increasing electrification, renewables, and understanding a variety of energy storage and transport options are just some of the technology opportunities that are before us, but commercial viability, global adoption, political willingness, and many, many other factors come into play.
I am more convinced than ever that collaborative R&D is essential for the UK’s success. It is of course not as simple as this, but I believe innovation is enhanced by diversity of thought and assisted in being brought to market by the sharing of risk & reward. To bring us back to the original topic, many of the potential solutions to the carbon challenge involve understanding advanced material systems. It will require expertise that transforms fundamental understanding, identifies processing characteristics and the behavioural response of materials, and supports in-service operation. This will require working with national and international centres of excellence, scale-up programmes (complimenting Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK programmes for example) and integration with relevant manufacturing research centres alongside research-intensive companies.
By being open to ambition, working in partnership, and investing in talented people, the UK can continue to deliver the technology required to remain competitive for many years to come.