The aim of the Operations Excellence (Op-Ex) Institute was to enhance the role of Cranfield University as an economic anchor within the region and nationally. It achieves this by enhancing learning and teaching through novel approaches, engaging students with the design and delivery of learning, and expanding knowledge exchange activities through clustering and collaboration with small manufacturing companies.
The Op-Ex Institute has been a huge success on all fronts. In particular the Op-Ex Studio, which was developed with the HEFCE Catalyst Fund, features augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) facilities. More than 500 engineers from industry have been introduced to this technology through the studio and many are now seeing its rewards in industry. It has also been the foundation of many student and postdoctoral research projects.
Facilitating innovative student projects
A range of student projects have been enabled by the Op-Ex Institute facilities, many of which are funded by industry. The AR and VR facilities are always a popular choice with students for their projects, providing an excellent learning environment that exposes them to challenging research around evolving technology. By adopting and adapting gaming technology software, the facilities allow fast development with the latest technology.
This provides our students with challenging research topics that span many business sectors and disciplines: avionics, medical, transport, precision engineering and manufacturing. Through-life engineering and sustainment have both proven to be an important area of development. Using a blend of technologies – AR/VR, wearables, Internet of Things (IOT), image recognition and additive manufacture – our students are working closely with industry to develop products, tools and processes that address the needs of high-value products and systems, from conceptual design all the way to end of life. They have led to the development of many kinds of models, simulation, visualisation and digital twins to aid industry and develop knowledge.
A novel delivery mode for apprenticeships
The telepresence facility is in constant use. It features a 3 x 3 matrix of 46” monitors that provide the backdrop to many lectures and tutorials and also give simultaneous communication to 500 independently located people. Unwittingly this online capability has become the basis of a novel delivery model for Cranfield University’s apprenticeship programme to industry as it enables the university to live stream courses to companies and minimise the apprentices’ time away from the business.
A multi modal learning project from the Op-Ex Institute has exposed many hundreds of school students and apprentices across all age ranges to engineering, dispelling the stereotypical myth of dirty and greasy conditions. It has instead shown the possibilities for developing and building solutions using CAD, prototyping using virtual reality and building using 3D printers. Maintenance and manufacturing tasks were set to challenge our engineers of tomorrow.
During the course of the project, 16 jobs were created directly. A further 60 indirect jobs were created and 602 engineers were trained. With continued investment, we will have a facility that will provide a long-term legacy to the university that helps industry training, research and teaching for many years to come.
Connecting with local industry
Conscious of the low uptake of engineering as a career or area of study by women (less than 10% of the UK’s engineering workforce), the Op-Ex Institute has put women at the front and centre of promotions and recruitment activity. This project has now moved forward as part of the university’s Women in Engineering programme, providing women from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership region with a chance to experience cutting edge engineering in the manufacturing sector. This innovative blended access to facilities incorporates a flexible state of the art collaboration space providing telepresence, AR/VR facilities, 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies.
The Manufacturing Co-operative is another integral element of the university’s activities that have been initiated by the Catalyst Fund investment. It creates a manufacturing business networking cluster for SMEs to promote collaboration and, in doing so, encourage access to funds and business opportunities. The Co-operative, now funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), enables Cranfield University to maintain and expand its links with local industry. It gives SMEs in the region access to the specialist equipment and expertise here at Cranfield University.
Looking forward, we will continue to enhance the facilities and maintain the high level of usage by industry, students and academics alike. The Catalyst Fund has left a lasting legacy.
Photograph provided by Cranfield University