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Engaging Manufacturers through your Research

Posted on 17/06/2019

Manufacturing Companies looking to develop new strategic approaches to improve their processes or approach could consider KTPs as a delivery mechanism

Having recently made the transition from academia to the KTN Manufacturing team, Abi Hird talks about her experiences of Knowledge Transfer and provides her three top tips for academics looking to engage with UK manufacturing firms.

#1 Listen actively

By really understanding the challenges manufacturers face from a commercial and technical perspective you will be able to frame your potential contribution in a way that is relevant for them. Find out what motivates the leadership: what keeps them up at night and what makes them proud to do their job? Describe your science in ways that relate, and you’ll get leverage and traction.

Active listening involves imagining what it’s like to be the other person; empathising with what it’s like to experience their world.  Ask open questions, respond with short summaries to confirm understanding. Perhaps challenge yourself by seeing how much you can get people to talk. People reveal the most amazing, and unexpected things, when given a chance! This will help you identify what will have most impact and where you can get buy-in to make things happen.

Talking about a problem that they’ve not experienced or something they’re not interested in is likely to switch people off. Even if you are certain you have expertise that the manufacturer can utilise, be prepared to share your ideas only after you’ve fully understood what they’re thinking. Listening also demonstrates respect, builds trust and, takes the pressure off you so you can relax and enjoy the process of building a fruitful relationship.

#2 Be open to big possibilities (and audacious challenges)

One piece of advice often given to early career academics is ‘start small’ – go for modest grants and small projects and build up from there. This can work in many instances but if you have a good idea and there is a need then it might be worth considering other strategies.

Having developed a new resource forecasting approach with a medical device company, an automotive company were keen to adopt it. I had lots of meetings with the manufacturer looking at small pots of funding to resource a project but although they seemed excited about my research, there wasn’t any traction with moving forward. When I mentioned Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) momentum shifted! The project was resourced, and impact was realised.

If manufactures believe in you and in your work, small projects might not represent an efficient use of their resources and can be perceived to be fiddly and piecemeal. If you’re looking at something the company considers to be strategic, perhaps a KTP might be a good route forward.

When scoping your research work, you might want to consider engaging with manufacturers early to understand the pivotal challenges they face. Be prepared to get involved in a detailed project in a potential new arena, rather than always operating within your comfort zone. If you want to increase the chances of having impact, understanding the practical problems from an end-user perspective up front can go a long way. KTN can help facilitate these conversations and connect you to the right manufacturing partners.

Industry may have concerns about collaborating such as intellectual property rights and commercially compatible time-scales. Be mindful that these concerns may exist but that they can be easily mitigated with a proactive, responsive approach and proven partnership programmes such as KTP.

#3 Magic happens at the interfaces

In nature, in engineered systems and in social systems all the exciting stuff happens at the interfaces. Systems theory tells us that interactions, relationships and structures drive behaviours (think about families, your work team or a bicycle!) If you want to play a part in delivering impact, being plugged in is key. Increasingly, the challenges faced by society are cross-disciplinary and can only be resolved by working in a more joined up way. Develop a flexible approach to methodology and ruthlessly challenge your own thinking. By being prepared to flex and adapt you’ll be better placed to innovate.  Knowledge Transfer Network can help scope opportunities and facilitate relationships between academics and manufacturers. Come along to events, chat to our experts, work across disciplines, talk to industry and embrace diversity and breadth.

With a significant uplift in the budget for KTP projects and a proportion set aside specifically for Management/Productivity-focused projects, now is a great time to be getting involved in translating manufacturing-relevant research into practice. Sign up for our Manufacturing newsletter, join us on Linkedin and Twitter or get in touch with the KTN manufacturing team for more information.