Notebooks to knowledge bases...
Professor Chris McMahon is the director of university of Bath's Innovative Design and Manufacturing Research Centre(IdMRC). He is a mechanical engineer with interests in computer applications, engineering design and information management.
Fifteen years ago, he met Dr Laurie Burrow of Lancaster University while on holiday. Laurie was working collaboratively with Converteam based in Rugby, a world leader in the design, construction and support of large-scale marine propulsion systems.
An increasing part of Converteam's operations centred on the in-service support of products during their lifetime. Some of the vital information needed to do this remained in engineers' notebooks and emails. No formal method of organising, storing and reusing this information exists. Gaining a better understanding of how this can be done became the focus of a long-term relationship between IdMRC and Converteam. It has lasted over 10 years. Originally EPSRC funded, it is now a Knowledge Transfer (KT) project.
One of the challenges faced was getting company interest in a long-term relationship. While it is relatively straightforward for companies to get involved in research, they need convincing of making longer-term commitments. Something that does not produce commercial benefits in the short-term can often be seen as high risk. Early collaborative research involving a PhD project, followed by working with Converteam as research partner on the KIM Grand Challenge project, laid the groundwork.
"Our relationship with Coverteam is a good example of how research at Bath can help medium-sized specialist engineering companies," says Professor MacMahon. "Essentially it's about people, a common interest in engineering excellence and trust. It's about a continuing interface between teams where there is a convergence of academic research and the real world of engineering."
Dr Laurie Burrow of Converteam agrees: "Our work with IdMRC has helped us understand the wider picture and some of the strategic issues which we may have otherwise neglected. I see long-term benefits in terms of knowledge management. We already use some of the research gained from IdMRC projects. It has also given us some ideas about new markets.
"Research outputs are often more robust than commercial products, usually aimed at quick profit," adds Professor McMahon. "Universities are perceived as 'honest brokers' of knowledge. Knowledge transfer is embedded in most of our activities."