What’s the key to a successful partnership with industry?
We talk to Professor Remo Pedreschi and Company Director, Martin McHugh.
It was a small proof-of-concept project that first brought Professor Remo Pedreschi and Martin McHugh together over ten years ago. Since that first meeting, arranged by Scottish Enterprise, their relationship has generated two Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), an Impact Acceleration Award, and a variety of student opportunities.
“What struck me from the start” says Pedreschi, who is a Professor of Architectural Technology and former Director of Research at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), “was Martin’s interest in new ideas; it’s what drives his willingness to support research and development”. What motivates Remo, in turn, is his commitment to applying research for the benefit of a sector that he is passionate about and which is hungry for innovation.
McHugh’s company, a metal fabricator, is called Martec Engineering Group Ltd. Its first KTP with Remo and his team was a two year project to enhance the design and production of a secure entry system for social housing. Such was its success that the system went from accounting for 30% of Martec’s turnover to 85%. When McHugh wanted to explore wider opportunities within building security, it seemed natural to consult the academic team.
The second KTP saw recent ECA graduate, Keith Milne, work within Martec for a three year period. The exploratory nature of the role added a new dimension to the collaboration, as Remo explains: “It’s interesting and very useful for us at the University to be looking at market share and opportunities strategically, as well as at the opportunities available with new fabrication and design technologies”.
For Martin, “it was imperative that we brought someone in who had architectural knowledge and experience, and was keen to help us develop new products. Our partnership with the University is never focused on the short term but inextricably linked with the long-term vision of our business”.
Warmth, respect and sharing skills and resources
Martin speaks with warmth about his relationship with Remo and the University, including the students he has met when giving talks about collaboration. While Keith has brought architectural design skills into Martec, the company has made its specialist equipment, such as its large laser, available to the student designers and engineers.
A student challenge has been launched to find a way to create a door that has as much glass as possible, but remains secure. As Remo says, “I don’t have to sell an idea to Martin. When I raise it, his response is inevitably “OK, let’s help you”.
The latest project to emerge from the relationship sees the partners return to the concept that first brought them together. With an Impact Acceleration Award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), they have been developing a hybrid timber and steel component as the basis for a sustainable construction system.
There are plans to explore the use of the system in combination with other products, including those utilising materials currently being tested by Remo and his students in the workshop. Remo concludes that there are few companies of Martec’s scale which, when faced with the challenges of a traditional industry, would establish such an in-depth partnership with an academic team, but “I think the success we have enjoyed over the years shows just how worthwhile it can be.”
An extended version of this interview was first published in Issue 14 of Infinite, the University of Edinburgh’s annual magazine on research, innovation and entrepreneurial activities. Read Infinite online.