Sometimes you have to do things differently…
…especially if you want to tackle a long-running problem, and if that problem appears to be getting worse not better.
This was the initial grain of the vision behind the birth of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME), a £32 million collaboration between Coventry University and Unipart Manufacturing.
The conventional degree wasn’t working. There was too much time in the classroom and not enough on the shop floor, where important theory is implemented alongside everyday pressures of lead times, working with different personalities and managing customer expectations. We needed to find a way of creating more industry-ready graduates that would have an immediate impact when entering employment. But how would we do that?
John Latham, Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University, and Unipart Manufacturing’s Carol Burke believed they had a possible answer: bringing industry and academia together to create the UK’s first ‘Faculty on the Factory Floor’. This concept would train engineers of the future to degree level at a state-of the-art manufacturing hub. The same facility and collaboration would allow us to commercialise research and development (R&D), and offer support to the UK supply chain.
It wasn’t all plain sailing and a lot of people were cautious. HEFCE and its Catalyst Fund thought differently and awarded the partnership £7.9 million over five years to turn the vision into reality.
Fast forward four years
In 2017 we have seen our first cohort of AME students achieve their BEng degrees. This was a major milestone in our progress and the first concrete evidence that the Factory Floor approach works.
All graduates have secured employment; three with Unipart Manufacturing and others across the supply chain. Another ten have continued their studies at Masters degree level.
Feedback to the project has been overwhelmingly positive, especially its experience-rich curriculum. Students are given 200 hours per semester to work on live manufacturing projects, ranging from process improvement and problem solving to prototyping and product introductions.
This is carried out at AME’s 1,700 square metre manufacturing hub, located on Unipart Manufacturing’s site in Coventry. It offers the very best in teaching environments and a shop floor that is crammed with state-of-the-art technology, including robotics, metrology and a soon-to-be installed £700,000 laser welder.
The student experience is not restricted to that location though. Some of our budding engineers have completed international placements; the most notable being at Suburu in the USA. That experience is a major positive on a young person’s CV in the early stages of their career.
We have recently taken on our fourth cohort, bringing the total number of students over 100. There was even a waiting list this year, which shows the appetite for what we are doing.
Making R&D pay
The HEFCE Catalyst Fund was a fantastic start for AME. It gave the impetus and financial power we needed to create the hub and teaching platforms quickly.
For the AME to be sustainable, though, we needed to find ways to generate revenue. It quickly became clear that the best means of doing this would be to tap into the different, but complementary strengths of two partners. Coventry University could bring knowledge and academic expertise, while Unipart Manufacturing provided engineering experience and projects that require a R&D solution.
This has been a stunning success. Over three years, we have proven that AME has the end-to-end capability to deliver from concept to design, manufacture and into production.
More than ten different projects have been completed, securing in excess of £8 million of funding. We worked on a new lightweight exhaust for Aston Martin, designed an innovative fuel rail for the Ford Fox engine and – more recently – played a key role in a consortium that looked at flexible battery technology for Williams Advanced Engineering.
A blueprint for the future
AME has received widespread recognition over the last three years. We secured a number of prestigious awards, national press articles and international best-practice visits from organisations in Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Italy and Japan.
It has been heralded as the approach the UK needs to take, and we genuinely believe it could be the blueprint that is needed to change the way higher level skills training is delivered.
This is just the start. We already have new funding in place from Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership to launch AME 2. This will provide a more concerted way to engage with the supply chain and open up training and technology opportunities for Small and Medium Enterprises looking to improve their productivity and competitiveness.
The name is a work in progress; but the appetite for greater collaboration between industry and academia is set in stone.
Photograph provided by Coventry University