20 August, 2012, by Paul Yeomans

It’s good to talk… even to academics

I spend a lot of my time visiting businesses from all sectors, everything from commercial archaeologists through to manufacturers of major household brands and taking in some big industrial players along the way.   As a result, I see a lot of different businesses that each has its own issues. Of late I’ve seen a common thread emerging from many of these businesses large and small which for me explains just one of the ways that Universities and the academic brains they contain can be of real commercial benefit to lots of businesses.

My own experience in a production environment told me that getting products out of the door each night, and keeping the customers happy was the key to the business. In part that’s true and we were good at it. We got a lot out of the door; our UK site easily out performed all of the other sites the company had, neither could our competitors match us.  Many successful businesses are just the same, they have established production processes, and they are good at running them to get products out of the door. The difficulty comes when something changes.

A food company I know that wanted to change its production process to reduce fat levels took two years of trial and error work, on the lines, as and when production schedules allowed carrying out tests. At the end of a costly two years of development work they arrived at a solution.

I, along with some academic colleagues with experience in this area, met with the company to discuss the work they’d done to improve their production processes. After listening to the story, one  of the academics mentioned that he actually had all the data they would have needed to change the process in a spread sheet on his laptop and that they could have it if they wanted. When they realised that they had wasted two years of effort they quickly came to the decision that they needed to spend some more time with that particular academic.

Equally, a large, well-established consumer goods company has one of the leading UK brands in their field and all of it is made in one factory on one enormous, ageing machine. The product this machine produces is good, but parts availability is non-existent and any repairs are lengthy and costly. So the company decided to buy a new machine. However after doing several trials on modern equivalents none could reproduce their existing product. Why? Well, something about the old machine is having an effect upon the raw materials, but the company don’t know enough about what is actually happening at a materials level to specify what that is and how it is doing it.

It’s not the case that we always know the answers; in fact you’re much more likely to get an academic mind excited by your problems if we don’t have the answers to hand on a laptop or in a paper.  A company I met with this week have a new technology that the academic literature says shouldn’t work, but it does. The academic here is desperate to get a handle on the materials science behind it both for the benefit of the company (so they can market their new products, and substantiate their claims) but also so he can hit his own research targets by publishing papers about the new technology and just what is going on inside the machine.

As a business, it’s often hard to see the relevance of fundamental science to the core operation, ‘hey its ok, we’re getting lots of products out of the door’ But if we succeed in transferring the right knowledge into these businesses we’ll not only solve the immediate problem but give them a capability that they can use the next time a competitor launches a better product, a supplier has a new ‘must have’ widget to sell, or legislation forces them to re think their current practices and to make sure they stay ahead of the game.

As a footnote, I ought to point out that my previous employer who was really good at getting lots of products out of the door, no longer exists.

Posted in Uncategorized