Talking 3D printing and innovation with Renishaw engineer Lucy Ackland

Materials World magazine
,
5 Jan 2016

Natalie Daniels speaks to Lucy Ackland, a Project Manager at Renishaw, about her early career in engineering and bringing together academia and industry. 

Tell me about your background and career.

I started an apprenticeship at the age of 16, at Renishaw, after deciding I wanted to be an engineer at 13 years old. There, I studied one day a week and had four days in work. I progressed through a number of different qualifications, largely around technical manufacturing and engineering, while undertaking six-month placements around the company. At the end of my four-year apprenticeship, I carried on studying for a degree, and Renishaw was happy to support me. In 2012, I achieved a first class honours degree in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering. I also spend a lot of my time volunteering with STEM, encouraging young people into the industry and trying to increase the female numbers in engineering.

What made you continue with higher education after your apprenticeship?

I had always been interested in studying for a degree, at school I performed well in maths and science. For me, it wasn't about not doing a degree – it was the fact that because I had already known for so long that engineering was what I wanted to do, I just wanted to get started, and not wait any longer. I always planned to do a degree but completing an apprenticeship first was an alternative route, rather than a superior one.

Now, a lot more companies are sending apprentices onto a degree. I believe apprenticeships get a bad reputation and a bit of stereotyping, and I hope stories like mine help people see that it can be an alternative. For me, doing an apprenticeship had a load of advantages over the normal university route. For example, I don't have any debt, and I have 11 years’ work experience under my belt at a young age. I think it is a fabulous way of doing it, and I recommend it to a lot of young people.

Describe a typical day at work.

I am largely a Project Manager in a group dealing with special projects – we look into new technologies to see whether they are worth developing further into products. The projects vary, however, additive manufacturing is one of my favourite areas. I also have projects to do with coatings and metallurgy, which I like, as I can get involved with all areas of the business. My role involves bringing people together – often people from different sites and in different organisations. My heart lies with mechanical engineering as well. I try to spend a couple of hours a day working on mechanical design to keep my technical hat on, as this is an area I have always particularly enjoyed. 

What areas have caught your eye in the past year? 

It is not often that engineering hits the headlines, and additive manufacturing has done just that. It interests people from a large and varied background and captures their imagination. In 2014, I spent a year with our additive manufacturing products division, in Staffordshire, to help them develop their machines. It really hit home my love for that technology. If someone mentions AM to me, I am more likely to jump on that project, but a lot of the time it is a collaborative decision between my manager and myself.

In your role, How do you bring academia and industry together?

One of my major projects is working with Innovate UK, Bath University and a global manufacturer of precision control systems. It is my responsibility to bring everyone together on that. It has been a real eye opener for me, working with the academics and people from different industries in a collaborative environment. 

What are your thoughts on the 'valley of death'?

I think it is a real shame when something is worked on for many years and doesn't get commercialised. You have to question why it hasn't been and a lot of the time I think it is because the focus is elsewhere. This can be true of some universities that are only interested in kudos from the science and research and not the commercial aspects of a technology. The way Renishaw and other companies are doing it is to really put the commercialisation at the forefront of the project. I think there is a lot of fantastic work being done at the moment. There is definitely a change with universities wanting to work with industries like ours. It is about getting expertise from people like us to try and focus on the commercialisation. 

There is a broad spectrum across the UK – I don't think European universities have to fight for their money as hard as in the UK or USA. They get more involved in the science and worry less about the commercialisation, whereas in the USA it is very much about commercialisation and making money from it. I think we lie somewhere in between, which I don't think is a bad thing.

It seems to me that Innovate UK is getting more focused about the monetary aspects of projects that they fund. While it is right to look after tax payers' money, I worry that there will be too much focus on short-term monetary aspects and not enough on the longer term commercial benefits of the projects that it supports. This could therefore make companies more conservative in their technical ambitions, rather than trying to get support for more challenging breakthrough type technologies. 

How do you try to bridge this gap?

Because we have been around a long time, we have a number of good relationships with many companies from a variety of UK industry sectors. With universities, we are lucky where Renishaw is located, in the sense that we have some very good universities around us, and particularly universities like Bath, that have some key people who are keen on working with us. When universities have people who are willing to put themselves out there and form relationships with industries, they are going to go further with commercialisation. It is the ones that don't have that focus or drive that will struggle. It is a build up of which universities can make this happen and how much they are driven on commercial considerations and gaining funding to try and make it work. 

To find out more about Lucy and the Renishaw projects, visit www.renishaw.com