Boffins scheme in cash plea

12th January 2007 at 00:00
High-school challenge that saves industry money short of funds

YOUNG BOFFINS are saving businesses millions of pounds by fixing production line headaches as part of an engineering challenge for school teams. But more solutions to real-life problems in Welsh-based industry could be lost if extra funding for the competition is not found.

Companies who have already profited from the annual event, organised by Engineering Education Scheme Wales, include car giant Ford and Dutch-owned steel-maker Corus.

Austin Matthews, the scheme's director, said that despite the huge savings to some businesses over the past three years, organisers had cash-flow problems to resolve.

"It costs pound;4,000 per school team, and we have always struggled to find it," he said. "However, we have 10 per cent more entrants this year, with no chance of extra funding. We don't want to have to turn any school team away."

Lee Eccles from Qioptiq, a company in St Asaph, north Wales, has been involved in the scheme for three years and is always amazed at the results.

"Each year I set a new problem and don't expect the students to be able to solve it," he said.

And this year has been no exception, says Mr Eccles, who recently attended the final for school teams in north Wales.

Held in the engineering laboratories of Bangor university, two teams from Holywell high school, in Clwyd, found a way to remove paint and metal trays from production lines at Corus, while pupils from Llanfyllin high school, in Powys, tackled hauling wood in an eco-friendly way for the Centre of Alternative Technology, Machynlleth.

Ysgol Glan Clwyd school devised a giant percolator for extracting peat from the water used to clean hydro-electric pipelines.

But it is a problem-solving invention from a team at Denbigh high school that has caught the eye of industry bigwigs.

Organisers say Denbigh high's work is being taken seriously. The school team worked out how to remove dust from hi-tech optical equipment using a remote-controlled, endoscope-style cleaning device.

Sixteen-year-old Hayley Gray, one of the five-member team of design students, says they hit on the solution after a "lot of sitting down and thinking".

"We had a couple of meetings each week to identify the problem and come up with as many solutions as possible," she said.

"We knew the endoscope would work, but it was difficult to work out how to make one, so we had to guess. We modelled it on a spine, for flexibility,"

she added.

Robin Jones, Denbigh high's head of product design, said: "This has been a fantastic experience of design and problem-solving. The pupils will be able to put this in their CVs as an example of real work that they've done."

The winner of the regional final will be announced shortly. All the teams worked three 12-hour days to solve the real-life problems posed by industry.

Last year, Holywell high school solved how to detect holes in sheet steel which was passing at 40mph by using infrared. Corus will soon be using the idea on its production lines, saving the company a whooping pound;1.2 million.

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