Collaboration - the key to successful innovation

Posted by Professor Nick Jennings, Dr Howard Stone and Dr Dominic Eggbeer on 18 November 2016
Photo of man in flight gear operating laptop computer with helicopter in background

Collaborate to innovate

The Collaborate to Innovate (C2I) Awards were launched by The Engineer, partnering with EPSRC and Engineering UK, to celebrate the role collaboration plays in developing new ground-breaking engineering solutions. The initiative recognises and showcases some of the UK's world-leading engineering research and innovation, with the winning projects varying in scale and ambition. All projects illustrate how foundational research can drive innovation, accelerating the journey from discovery to impact. The leads for three of the winning projects highlight their experiences here.

Information, data and connectivity - Professor Nick Jennings

The ORCHID project tackled one of the key challenges in modern computer science - how humans and intelligent software systems can work together in a seamless and effective manner in challenging real-world applications. Such human-agent collectives are required to make sense of the volume, variety and pace of data that is available today from a myriad of sources and devices. Only by flexibly combining the best of human ingenuity and problem solving with machine intelligence can we hope to build the complex socio-technical systems required by tomorrow's applications.

ORCHID tackled this grand challenge by undertaking world-class basic research in areas such as artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, machine learning and ubiquitous computing. This research often involved the bringing together of these different disciplines to develop sufficiently broad-based models. There was a strong ethos of building and deploying prototypes 'in the wild' to gain insights into how users interact with them. These insights were then used to generate new fundamental scientific challenges. The project's focus was on applications in the areas of disaster response, smart energy systems and citizen science, but the impact and application of human-agent collectives goes well beyond this.

In a project of this scale, the people and the way they work together is a fundamental determinant of success. This was one of the project's strengths. We received long-term, flexible funding that enabled us to develop critical-mass and explore a good number of exciting opportunities; a number of which only developed during the course of the project. The researchers, at all levels and all institutions, worked together, discussed ideas, developed theories and built software systems. This commonality of purpose was central to the project's success.

Although the project has now finished, its research agenda and research network will continue to flourish. ORCHID directly trained and employed fifty researchers and PhD students and has spawned thirty follow-on projects worth £15 million. It has also established a new multidisciplinary research community and deployed real-world applications of human-agent collectives that will endure and be further developed.

Transportation - Dr Howard Stone

The Rolls-Royce/EPSRC Strategic Partnership Flagship Programme in Structural Metallic Systems for Gas Turbine Applications was launched in 2009 and recently secured full funding to 2019. The core activities in this jointly-funded initiative are centred at the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham and Swansea and link with activities at four other universities and several other industrial partners. A unique feature of this initiative is the inclusion of a parallel training programme delivered through a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) developing the next generation of UK materials scientists and metallurgical engineers and protecting against skills shortages. It has a clear aim to provide the foundation for next-generation aero-engines that, by operating hotter or faster than current designs, will deliver significant improvements in engine efficiency and environmental impact.

Over the seven years that it has been running, the partnership has delivered many new technologies that have translated into improved products and services. These have included the development of a range of new materials such as; high-strength steels for engine shafts, nickel and cobalt-based super-alloys for turbine disks and highly heat-resistant refractory metal alloys for turbine blades. The incremental improvements in performance made possible by these developments will translate into new product offerings as well as significant savings for Rolls-Royce in engine manufacturing and service costs, and multi-million pound annual savings for operators of large aircraft fleets.

Health and wellbeing - Dr Dominic Eggbeer

Good design helps to solve messy problems that involve multiple disciplines, often with very different technical languages and cultures. If you're a surgeon undertaking complex procedures, good design can help to improve the outcome and speed up the process. 3D printing in metal has been used to fabricate custom medical implants for reconstructive surgery for around a decade, yet computer-aided design hasn't kept pace; the process still needs a design engineer taking up a surgeons' valuable time to achieve a suitable result. Time constraints of medical professionals have made it difficult for healthcare providers to introduce design/engineering techniques, so hospitals struggle to take advantage of 3D printing technology. Surgeons aren't typically great design engineers and design engineers are rarely surgeons. Until this knowledge gap is bridged, custom implant design will be resigned to those who have the time to learn.

The Additive-manufacture for Design-led Efficient Patient Treatment project (ADEPT) solution devised as part of an Innovate UK and EPSRC-funded project was to automate the design for 3D printing processes. It eliminates the need for expert design engineer input. This follows the trend of a lot of consumer services where it's increasingly possible to customise stock products or tweak designs using web-based applications. The ADEPT project takes this to surgeons; it enables them to drag a single slice of medical scan data to the software and easily create a custom implant design, sign it off and send it for manufacture. The software has been co-developed with surgeons and other healthcare professionals to ensure it's easy to use and the output is clinically suitable. Hospitals will be able to employ the principles of just-in-time production of bespoke implants, reducing their need for large a stock of materials and off-the-shelf products. Patients will benefit from better-fitting products that reduce procedure risk and duration. To achieve the aim, collaboration between industry, the NHS and academia was fundamental.

Collaboration essential for success

What is particularly striking across all of the projects considered for these awards is the way in which research and innovation is driven by collaboration. The teams involved in these awards span multiple organisations and bring together a broad set of skills and experiences. They combine a range of disciplinary traditions and they link foundational discovery-led science with engineering practice. Collaboration drives the flow of ideas from the research lab into real world use. These ideas often span multiple sectors with lessons learned in one domain helping shape solutions in another.

People and flow of ideas are the driving force of innovation, and collaboration is essential for success.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Professor Nick Jennings
Name: Professor Nick Jennings, CB, FREng
Job title: Vice-Provost (Research)
Organisation: Imperial College London

Professor Nick Jennings CB, FREng is Vice-Provost (Research) at Imperial College. He is responsible for promoting, supporting and facilitating the College's research performance and for leading on the delivery of the Research Strategy. Nick also holds a chair in Artificial Intelligence in the Departments of Computing and Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Before joining Imperial, Nick was the Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton (where he is still a Visiting Professor) and the UK Government's Chief Scientific Advisor for National Security.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Professor Howard Stone
Name: Dr Howard Stone
Job title: Lecturer
Department: Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy
Organisation: University of Cambridge

Dr Howard Stone, is a Lecturer in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge and Deputy Director of the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Professor Dom Eggbeer
Name: Dr Dominic Eggbeer
Job title: Unit Manager, Surgical and Prosthetic Design
Section / Team: PDR
Organisation: Cardiff Metropolitan University

Dr Dominic Eggbeer is Unit Manager, Surgical and Prosthetic Design at PDR, Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK and Technical Advisor (Honorary) - Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, UK. He works closely with healthcare specialists to develop improved ways of using design and associated technologies to undertake procedures and develop devices more efficiently.