Engineering may suffer from an image of oil and rags, but Welsh sixth-formers are finding out what it is really about by cracking real life problems for local firms. Roy West reports
A scheme in Wales is turning the principle of conventional industry links and work experience projects on its head. Instead of employing students as dogsbodies in an office or giving them a public relations tour of the factory, companies are challenging them to solve their real life engineering problems and save them money.
Pupils from Ysgol Morgan Llwyd, Wrexham, have saved a firm that makes massive gas storage tanks Pounds 25,000 a year, by designing a cradle support that can be re-used for different sized cylindrical pressure vessels; and a team of students from Prestatyn High School have saved a washing powder manufacturer Pounds 80,000 a year, by improving the accuracy of weighing during the bagging of the powder and thus cutting the need to overfill.
This year's challenges include: designing and manufacturing a machine to automate the process of sorting small disc magnets and fixing to double-sided tape at a pre-set pitch for Sony; redesigning the manual winch used to operate an emergency bleeder valve on a blast furnace for British Steel; investigating the possible use of trenchless technology in connecting customers to the CableTel network; and developing cost effective methods to reduce pollution from combined sewer overflows for Hyder Consulting.
In each case a team of pupils is paired with a company by the Engineering Education Scheme in Wales, which is hoping to spark an interest in engineering as a career by giving students a chance to have a go at it themselves. After five months' work, including a residential workshop at a leading university, they have to prepare an RD report on their work and their findings, which is presented for assessment.
"It is essentially a contract between the company and the school, with us acting as brokers," explains Shaun McLoughlin, the scheme's associate director. "We ask each firm to put in Pounds 1,500 to support the organisation, plus six to eight days of an engineer's time, while we match funds with the school's local TEC.
"By the time they produce their report and make a 15-minute presentation to senior engineers, the sixth-formers ought to have learned a lot on all fronts and will be in a position to make value judgments about their university choices."
Often the challenges presented to school teams are problems that have been put on the back-burner because a company has not found the time to solve them, but might clearly benefit if it could.
At Ysgol Morgan Llwyd last year's project centred on designing an all-purpose cradle support for the huge cylindrical pressure vessels used by Air Products of Acrefair, a local firm involved in manufacturing equipment for industrial gas production, distribution and storage. The existing wooden cradles - used to hold the vessels in place during precision welding processes - do not adjust for different sized vessels. In addition they become compressed in use and can be used only once. The essential challenge was to design a safe and durable saddle that would accommodate vessels of various diameters and be used again and again. Team members drew up a range of preliminary design sketches which were centred on four solutions.
Suggestions involving air bags and rollers were discarded at an early stage and the detailed design work focused on two systems, one a kind of saddle support using blocks and the other featuring heavy-duty chains as a form of hammock.
The Air Products design staff were clearly intrigued by the innovative use of chains and initially decided to take this idea forward for development. In the event, however, it was the saddle support system that was to be fully explored as the most practicable option.
Air Products has since put their team's solution into practice, making considerable cost savings - because the new cradles are adjustable and re-usable, whereas the previous ones had to be thrown away after use at a cost of Pounds 10,000 a time.
"They had the intelligence to look at something in isolation and come up with some good ideas," says Laurence O'Donnell, works manager at Air Products. And the proof is in the pudding, because they're in use on our shop floor."
Next week this year's Morgan Llwyd team will present their report on their attempt to find quicker ways for Air Products to insulate their nitrogen tanks, which have to hold the gas at -196 degrees centigrade.
One company which has benefited from the schools partnerships for some years now is Warwick International, a Mostyn-based manufacturer of bleach activators for washing powders. Three years ago the project link with Prestatyn High solved their bagging problems. Last year, a team of 12 students from Sir Richard Gwyn school in Flint worked out the the best way to control a troublesome and potentially dangerous build-up of electrostatic charges in the firm's silos. And this year another team from Sir Richard Gwyn is investigating ways to detect and separate out foreign bodies that found their way into the powder while it was being conveyed by pipe into the tankers.
They earned high praise from the assessors for their presentation of the final report, even though they were thwarted in their attempts to detect the foreign bodies using ultrasonic equipment, because the company that was to supply the transducer let them down. "They were able to learn what actually happens in industry," says Phil Bond, Warwick International's projects engineering manager, wrily. As a result, Warwick is helping them to continue their investigations beyond the allocated project time.
The project on electrostatic showed the benefits of working in a team with a knowledge of a breadth of disciplines between them. The students brainstormed 10 initial ideas, drawing on knowledge from A-level disciplines spanning design and technology, electronics, textiles maths, and physics.
Potential solutions investigated ranged from the use of conductive rods or an inert gas to various means of neutralising the build-up of static in the silos. A visit to the factory helped to eliminate some ideas on grounds of safety or impracticability.
It became clear that the key to the problem lay in the pipe and, during a three-day workshop with specialists at Bangor University, they built a test rig to simulate the process. A sloping plastic pipe conveyed the powder into a Faraday pail, representing the silo, where the static created could be measured. Eventually they realised they did not need to stimulate the actual plant but simply had to create static and find a way of reducing it.
It was back at school, however, that team member Gareth Cooper hit on the best solution. While flicking through a physics book, he noticed that a beta radiation source emits negatively charged particles and effectively works as an ioniser. This led to the discovery that industry often uses radioisotopes to combat static. After tests they concluded that the solution was to reduce the static build-up by using ionisers.
Though, over the six months of the project they had been supported at their weekly meetings by the company's engineers, Alex Seaton and David Lewis, who offered guidance and advice, the students had gained enormously in confidence from tackling a real life problem principally by themselves. As one of them, Chris Owen, puts it: "When I first saw the project my thoughts were, 'Oh my God, how are we gonna do this?' It wasn't like school work. There were no teachers to spoonfeed us the answers or point the way to the solution - it was my first chance to do something almost completely independently."
This year 339 students are taking part in the scheme in Wales, working with 58 companies in 60 projects. Similar Engineering in Education Schemes are run in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, under the umbrella of the Royal Academy of Engineering. More than 1,400 students take part nationwide.
Not all of the project solutions in the Engineering in Education Scheme make it on to the shop floor. But Shaun McLoughlin does not think this matters. For a start, industrial firms are forever looking at a range of solutions to existing problems and shelving some of them temporarily or indefinitely even if they are viable. The important thing is to give students a flavour of what real life engineering is like.
"One of the big problems for engineering is the image of oil and rags, we have to get that cleared up once and for all," he says. "Stragglers are told by uninformed careers teacher if you can't do anything else go and do engineering. We are trying quite deliberately to give the very bright youngsters, those with 8 to 10 GCSEs, a chance to see what engineering is like before they make their UCAS decision.
"In addition, they will also have the satisfaction of achieving something real, a real project, in real time that they can use at their UCAS interview, which we know goes down very well for them."
For details of the Engineering Education Scheme contact: (Wales) Austin Matthews, tel: 01600 750225; (England) Linda Scott, tel: 01707 393323; (Scotland) Gillian Lomas, tel: 01224 773320; (Northern Ireland) Brian Campbell, 01232 366682