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Linking industry and academia

Dave Gent | 02 Nov 2015 | Comments

One of the things that I enjoy about being a civil engineer is the new challenges that present themselves every day. Of course, like everyone else, some projects never seem to go away but on the whole, no two days are the same. Solving problems is the definition of the consulting civil engineer and it is a definition I am proud to have applied to me.

Investigating new ways to solve these problems is one of the reasons I recently chose to go back to university to complete a PhD, and I was lucky that Atkins agreed to support me in doing this. Yes, it is difficult to juggle work, home and academic life, but knowing that I will influence the decisions people make in the future and that I am investigating a problem that no one else has found a solution for, gives me a real sense of doing something worthwhile.

That’s when I came to realise how important it is for companies to support and engage with academia. Funding PhD students to research solutions to the latest problems, or even those problems that have not yet appeared as problems, is critical to promoting innovation. Although usually there is an anticipated outcome to a research thesis, there could be many subsidiary outcomes that were not anticipated which could help solve other problems.

And there it is again: solving problems.

That’s why clients employ consulting engineers, to solve their problems. Linking ourselves with academia, which has a level of freedom not bound by stringent remits, codes of practice or ingrained thought processes, allows us to develop new and novel solutions outside of the typical constraints found within the industry.

I was told at university that the word ‘engineer’ comes from the Latin ingeniare, which means to contrive or devise. And in this day and age of sustainability, economy and rapid technological evolution, devising ways of doing things differently is almost expected of us. To use an old cliché, we need to think outside the box. We need to develop solutions that will use less resources, take less time to build and cost the client less money. In short we need to demonstrate that having a competent and innovative engineer on board has added value to the project.

It is the engineers in the design office or out on site that usually identify problems with materials, processes and constructability. As in my own case, once those problems are identified, academic research can be undertaken to solve them and these solutions can then be developed and applied on future projects. Identification, investigation and application are the three cornerstones of engineering innovation. Remove one and the industry will stagnate, which is why I believe it is important that the industry continues to support academia.