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Sunday Times Award of “University of the Year” – Excellence to benefit industry

Automotive Industries spoke to Professor Richard Stobart, head of the Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering at Loughborough University.

The UK-based Loughborough University has an enviable reputation for being a center of excellence for automobile and aeronautical engineering. Situated on a 433-acre site – the largest in the UK – the university is near the town on Loughborough and less than two hours away by train from the British capital, London.

The university has long-standing collaborative links with many blue-chip companies, including Ford, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Caterpillar and Lotus. So on the campus, one finds the Henry Ford College for retail and management training of Ford employees throughout Europe that was set up at a cost of 10 million pounds. Plus there is the Rolls-Royce Fuel Cells facility, and the Systems Engineering Innovation Centre (SEIC) – a partnership venture between the University and BAE Systems.

Loughborough University’s Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering has its origins in automobile and aeronautical engineering courses started in 1919 and 1935 respectively. Since becoming a University in 1966 the Department has built on its teaching strengths and gained a national and international reputation for research. The University prospectus says that the Mechanical, Aeronautical and Manufacturing research area is the biggest engineering research area at Loughborough. Multidisciplinary research takes place across the Departments of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Human Sciences, Materials Engineering and Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering. Research focuses on ensuring the highest quality research and its maximum impact on industry.

Commercial potential is the heart of much of Loughborough’s research and the University has a strong track record of fostering innovation and spin out company formation. To date over 20 spin-outs have been nurtured – more per research pound than any other institution in the UK. Its intellectual property portfolio is managed by a specialist team within the Enterprise Office. Spin out formation is aided by Loughborough Innovation Centre, one of the region’s largest and most successful high tech business incubators, located in the heart of the University’s thriving research environment and currently home to 38 early stage companies.
Loughborough’s reputation has attracted students from across the globe. Out of the total student body of nearly 17,000 students, nearly 3500 are international students. Close links with industry allow the university’s students to benefit from profitable work placements, with 65 per cent of Loughborough’s degrees offering a year in industry. Professional institutions and business regard the University’s degree programs highly, and its graduates are consistently targeted by the UK’s top recruiters, says the university.

Loughborough says it is well known for the quality of its teaching, verified by teaching quality assessment scores averaging 22.5 out of a possible 24. The University gained a top five place in the 2006 National Student Survey, with nine out of its 23 departments topping their subject tables, and recently published national league tables place Loughborough among the top ten UK universities.

To sustain the high quality of teaching the University has developed strong academic, guidance and welfare systems to support its students throughout their education. In 2006 Loughborough won a national award for the UK’s Best Student Experience.

Automotive Industries spoke to Professor Richard Stobart, head of the Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering at Loughborough University.

AI: Please tell us about Loughborough’s international programs and industry partnerships. 

Loughborough has the largest concentration of engineering in the UK and it is reflected in the diversity of our degree courses. Strong industrial links have always characterized Loughborough engineering. Ford Motor Co have been working closely with the University since the 1980s when Loughborough started a specialist Masters course exclusively for Ford employees. Caterpillar has funded a Chair of Thermodynamics at the University for over 10 years. The University is working with the Company on a range of research projects. Caterpillar makes extensive use of training courses for graduate trainees Lotus Cars has been a long time partner with Loughborough on a range of research projects that encompass engine technology and vehicle dynamics.

For nearly twenty years, Loughborough has been the location of choice of Rolls Royce for work on combustion in jet engines. The concept of the “University Technology Centre” is proving to be very interesting to companies in the Automotive Sector. Such an approach creates stability for the university to commit resources and for the company to create the environment where the ideas vital to the future of the business can be nurtured and developed. 

The University offers undergraduate degrees in all of the main engineering disciplines. While the majority of our students come from across the UK, overseas participation from China and India is developing and we see a good cross section of students from Europe. What differentiates us is a specialist Automotive Engineering degree programme. From the engineering fundamentals all the way through to specialist subjects that the students take in their final year of study teaching is firmly rooted in the automotive technologies. 

At Masters level Automotive Systems Engineering is available for full time students over one year and for part time, industry based students over three years. Here we place the emphasis on the kind of knowledge and skills that engineering managers will need as they take charge of innovative product development.

AI: How would you describe Loughborough University’s branding and expertise as an International Center of Excellence in Automotive Industrial Design and Engineering? 

I would summarise Loughborough’s branding as topical and modern while at the same time regarding the “hard engineering” that is the stock in trade of the industry. 

Loughborough maintains very high academic standards and yet insists that students have a strong practical aspect to their work. In research our work is progressive and internationally regarded and remains strongly linked to the industrial agenda of our partners. Interestingly some of our industrial partners are expecting “blue skies contribution: for us to really blaze a trail for them. It’s a new trend and one that we expect to continue. 

In some areas the University’s reputation goes before it. In ergonomics, the University has held a pre-eminent position for many years and today remains very involved with the planning and design of the vehicle interior. The story goes on: we have a world leading group that works on traffic management and intermodal aspects of transport and our vehicle safety unit has for more than thirty years been working on analysis of car accidents and identifying the engineering, policy and social factors that influence road safety. 

Loughborough has grown from being a small UK Technology University to occupying a place on the international stage. Partnership with multi-national companies and a strong of overseas co-operations reinforce this image. The University also recognizes that today both education and research are often delivered my multiple partners. Loughborough for example is one of three Universities from the English Midland (with Nottingham and Birmingham) that formed the Midland Energy Consortium to host the UK Government’s Energy Technologies Institute. 

AI: How will your courses reflect the current challenges facing the automotive industry? 

We were challenged by the publication of Ford’s CO2 blueprint that set out the paths for substantial reductions in CO2 in future vehicles. In our MSc programme we see the engineers who are going to lead in 10-20 years from now. Our job is to equip them with the skills, knowledge and outlook to be effective technical managers, Above all we need to be topical and setting out a future perspective. We have started to review our entire MSc with a view to content. That includes technical content, but we are also introducing soft skills like team work and ideas management. 

On the technical side, we are placing stronger emphasis on clean propulsion technologies, but highlighting the engineering challenges in for example hybrid systems. We are considering the changes to vehicle dynamics that come about through using electric propulsion. We are also talking much more about vehicle architecture and the application of techniques like functional safety. We’re also ensuring that we communicate the tension that exists in the automotive world. There is a great deal of uncertainty and the best engineers are those who can adapt, reacting to change but who can develop and maintain a strategic view of the world. 

Electrical and electronic systems now make up over 35% by value of the modern vehicle. We are introducing the students to the ideas of both power and data architectures and what are the essential building blocks of the electrical system.
Our research work has the potential to feed into all of our programmes and it certainly keeps the new topics coming in. 

All of our students: postgraduate and undergraduate conduct project work that is within an existing research project. This gives our students an understanding of the emerging issues.

AI: What kind of work is the university doing in next-generation automotive technologies? Who are the industry partners for these projects? 

We are tackling some of the fundamental questions: issues as basic as tyre modeling (with Jaguar) and crankcase ventilation (Perkins) are commonplace where the University is generating new and much needed answers. We are looking at new ways of controlling the combustion process in diesel engines (Caterpillar) and some very advanced ideas in control of particulate matter in diesel exhaust. We have just installed a hydrogen re-fuelling facility to help with our work on alternative fuels (with Intelligent Energy). 

One project that is currently generating particular excitement in the University is directed at the development of a “component in the loop” lab where our philosophy is to provide the flexibility to do the detailed systems investigation and optimisation that will characterize future powertrain solutions.

AI: What are some of the new developments for your university vis a vis industry partners such as Ford? 

This question is best answered with an example of a major development from the University’s strategic plan. At the Western end of the Loughborough campus, there is already a cluster of organisations specializing in “low carbon” energy. In amongst this are both commercial and public bodies. Organisations include the UK governments Energy Technologies Institute and Rolls Royce Fuel Cell Power Division. Our new “component in the loop” lab will sit somewhere in the middle between the University’s renewable energies lab and CENEX, an organization specializing in setting up and running low carbon field trials. As the campus expands, there will be increase in this kind of business that will be drawn by association with this critical mass of energy business and organisations. 

One of Loughborough’s proven strengths is to gather research activity, achieve critical mass and accrue the benefits of a research community for everyone involved. A community is far more effective than individual enterprises can be in their engagement with government for both funding and policy. 

Following a similar approach, the University is creating a state-of-the-art Design Centre and will concentrate ergonomics, industrial and product design in a purpose built facility. The Design Centre is a pivotal aspect of a large development that will see the re-development of the eastern area of our campus.

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