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National award for South West engineering collaboration

National award for South West engineering collaboration

A strong partnership between the University of Bristol and a thriving helicopter equipment company has won a top national award for its collaborative work, which led to the development of world-leading technology.

Academic experts from the Faculty of Engineering joined forces with Helitune to form a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) in 2006, with the aim of tackling a long-standing engineering problem – how to reduce the damaging vibrations in helicopter rotors.

The partnership has been such a success, creating technology that’s now used by Helitune customers around the world, that the Technology Strategy Board named it the winner of its Best Knowledge Transfer Award, presented by Government minister MP David Willetts.

The innovation and success is in a novel algorithm which processes in-flight data for rotor track and balancing (RTB) and then generates a set of mechanical adjustments to bring the rotor within acceptable vibration levels.

Professor Nick Lieven, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Bristol and the academic supervisor of the project, was Dean of Engineering when the KTP was established.

He said: “The partnership has been a huge success for everyone involved. It’s a great example of how academia can work with industry to the benefit of both parties. Helitune approached us with a problem that the whole industry had been struggling with and it provided us with an opportunity to model the dynamics of a rotor system and come up with a solution to enable helicopters to fly more smoothly.

“It’s also had a positive effect on teaching, with the introduction of new rotorcraft dynamics modules, influencing PhD projects and resulting in graduates securing jobs within the rotorcraft industry.”

The project has developed and deployed the Minimum Flight Routine (MFR) technique across Helitune’s entire product range, transforming the company’s standing in the worldwide helicopter maintenance market by offering civil and military operators a cost-effective, more accurate way to minimise damaging helicopter vibration.

The MFR technique was underpinned by a fundamental EPSRC-funded research project which was carried out under Professor Lieven’s supervision at Bristol University in the 1990s. The resulting algorithm was adopted by Helitune and used to take a product to market some 15 years after the initial research findings emerged.

Helitune, based in North Devon, has now secured new contracts across the world, worth several million pounds. It has employed 12 new members of staff and is well placed to exploit the technology further in the development of its new product range.

Peter Morrish, Technology Manager at Helitune and the industrial supervisor of the project, said: “The whole Management Team recognises the value of KTP.  The culture of the business has changed and it has given us confidence to invest more in R&D (research and design), which can only be a good thing. We were able to combine our applications experience and the University’s theoretical knowledge and enthusiasm to get solutions flying fast. 

“We simply could not have achieved this level of innovation and success without working together.  Helicopter operators throughout the world are today benefitting directly as a result of the technology generated from this project: reducing operating costs, improving availability, and enhancing reliability and safety.”

The project also won the 2012 Royal Academy of Engineering’s KTP Engineering Excellence award and the award the best paper in the American Helicopter Society’s 2012 Rotorcraft Forum for Product Support Systems technology.

KTPs help UK businesses to improve their competitiveness, productivity and performance by accessing the knowledge, technology and skills that are available within world-class UK universities, colleges and research organisations.

The knowledge sought is embedded into the company through a project undertaken by a recently qualified person (known as the KTP Associate), recruited specifically to work on the business challenge. There are some 800 KTPs across the country, funded by 13 Government organisations and led by the Technology Strategy Board. Each Partnership is part-funded by Government, with the balance of costs coming from the company partner.

In 2011/12, for every £1m of Government money invested in the KTPs, 39 new jobs were created, 279 company staff were trained. Additionally, £1.53m was invested by companies in plant & machinery and company profits increased by £0.48m, plus an anticipated increase in annual profit of £4.79m after project completion.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: “The Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are an excellent example of how Government investment can boost collaboration between business and the research base. With the right partnership, our brightest minds can address real world problems, drive growth, create jobs and transform UK business.”

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