Universities and colleges have a vast amount of equipment at their disposal and rich seams of talent and expertise that can be mined. Sharing those resources with other institutions and with business opens up new opportunities to boost the UK’s technology sectors.
If like me you are a child of the 1970s and 80s, you probably grew up surrounded by the first wave of the tech revolution – personal computers, video games consoles, and all sorts of other home electronics. But then something went horribly wrong, and those promising ideas and the firms behind them largely disappeared. Of course what happened was IBM’s PC and Apple’s Macintosh, which quickly gathered a global momentum that many of the early pioneers were unable to compete with.
But how does a promising new invention go from the research labs at a college or a university into full production and shipping? All too often the answer in the UK has been that it doesn’t; hence the popular view of us as a nation of inventors who allow other people to realise our ideas. But it doesn’t have to be that way as counter-examples Dyson and ARM prove.
Lend me your ARM
In 2010 the then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson commissioned Acorn and ARM co-founder, Dr Hermann Hauser to advise the government on ways to support the commercialisation of UK research. Hauser recommended the establishment of Technology and Innovation Centres to bring academia and industry together in a similar way to Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes.
The recommendations have subsequently been acted on through the coalition government’s Catapult Centres, a physical base for R&D collaborations between businesses and academia, equipped with state of the art facilities and expertise.
- Cell Therapy Catapult - at Guy's Hospital, London
- Digital Catapult - London, with a number of hubs around the UK
- Future Cities Catapult - London
- High Value Manufacturing Catapult - Solihull, with a number of centres around the UK
- Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult - Glasgow
- Satellite Applications Catapult- at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus
- Transport Systems Catapult - Milton Keynes
- Energy Systems Catapult
- Precision Medicine Catapult
Pooling resources to maximise the benefits
My own involvement with Innovate UK and the Catapult network began back in 2012 when I set up the HPC Midlands regional supercomputer centre for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
I found that computer-based modelling and simulation was already either an essential part of the workflow for many businesses, or something they had identified as a key future requirement. But often, the most advanced computing capability that the firm had was a high specification workstation that might take days or even weeks to complete a routine task.
For me the defining moment came in working with E.ON, which had a powerful in-house workstation cluster of its own. We determined that use of our facilities could speed up E.ON’s modelling and simulation jobs, such as the gas turbine simulation pictured, by a factor of 30 to 145.
Working with more and more businesses, we found that this kind of dramatic reduction in ‘time to solution’ was often possible. In some cases firms found that the impact on their bottom line was so significant that they were prepared to move their entire simulation workload onto our supercomputer.
Thus began my work exploring how to make facilities like HPC Midlands more accessible to industry.
When we are talking about a small island like the UK, it makes sense for us to take a serious look at pooling our resources. There is a wide range of equipment held by universities and colleges that is also of value to business.
Say you’re designing a new turbine blade. Once you have tested virtual models of your design, the next stage might be to use additive manufacturing like 3D printing to create a physical prototype, and then carry out wind tunnel tests. And when the first pre-production models arrive, you might want to use a mass spectrometer for materials characterisation and verify the integrity of the manufacturing process.
The combination of the facility plus the expert skills to operate it and interpret the results can make a huge difference.
On joining Jisc I realised that we are in an ideal position to complement the work of the Catapults by making equipment held by colleges and universities easier to find, and by reducing the friction of sharing those facilities and that expertise.
What are we doing already?
And so to our work. We are brokering common terms and conditions for access to HPC facilities. We now have four major HPC centres offering their services through our common terms and conditions – HPC Midlands, HPC Wales, N8 HPC and STFC DiRAC. Together, these represent £60m of public investment in supercomputing, for institutions to share and industry to access.
Looking to the future we are also piloting Kit-Catalogue, a piece of software that lets an institution quickly and easily put up a database of the equipment that it holds, as a simple sharing idea.
Our ten pilot sites are feeding into EPSRC’s one stop shop for equipment sharing, equipment.data, which holds the details of some 10,000 items of high value equipment. Newcastle University alone is sharing over 814 items valued at £20,000 or more, with a combined value of over £16m, and we estimate the total value of publicly funded equipment being shared by the sector at over £200m.