Local business and educator collaborate to develop a new generation of digitally enabled engineers

Tees Business Digital Media Pack

Newcastle College has embarked on an ambitious plan to equip the North-East with a new genre of engineer – with the support of Tees-based enterprise resource planning specialists E-Max Systems.

Working in partnership with leading local manufacturers and engineering companies, the college has been reviewing skills requirements for future engineers and has developed an innovative new course to provide its students with the right knowledge to provide real value to its future employers in advanced manufacturing.

The course, Engineering with Applied Digital Technologies, is a unique combination of engineering and digital study, creating a qualification which is two-thirds engineering principles and one-third digital knowhow.

Students can choose either a mechanical or electrical engineering focus and will have opportunities to gain first-hand experience of how engineering and applied digital technology is put into practice.

One of the key reasons for the development of this qualification has been the increasing pressure on manufacturing and engineering businesses to adopt smarter working processes and technologies.

The government’s 2017 Make Smarter review set out how UK manufacturing can be transformed through the adoption of digital technology, yet the uptake has been slow across smaller SMEs. The main reasons for this appear to be the lack of understanding of the concepts of Industry 4.0 and digital transformation, or an inability to put these into practice.

Many companies are unsure where to start and don’t have the resources to put this into effect.

By increasing understanding and providing an appropriate skill set for their graduates, Newcastle College aims to provide a solution to this issue. During the two-year course, students will have the opportunity to learn and experience robotics, 3D printing, advanced CNC machine control, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, artificial intelligence, big data and augmented reality technologies.

Thanks to a funding boost of £480,000 in 2020, the college has been able to upgrade its technology, giving the students access to a new five-axis CNC milling machine (the largest of its kind in any education institution), 3D printing, robotics and pneumatics.

At the core of the programme, underpinning the equipment and manufacturing processes, will be enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, supplied by Thornaby-based ERP provider E-Max Systems.

Andrew Esson, director of industrial strategy, who led the college’s review of skills requirements for future engineers, explains: “The crux of digital transformation and Industry 4.0 is data and the ability to collect and manage higher and higher volumes of data.

“The vision of connected supply chains can’t happen without an end-to-end ERP system in your business. But before companies can get to that level, they need to understand what the critical incisive data that will drive their business is – whether it’s information that helps them drive an enquiry through to an order or provides management with details on how things are going.

“It’s about having that single source of truth, which is best available from an ERP system, so it’s imperative that our students understand how ERP systems work and what they are capable of.

“We went through a tough evaluation program and are satisfied that E-Max ERP is exactly what we wanted. Not only is it a highly functional end-to-end ERP system, the company is a local, well-established provider whose software is used by many other North-East engineering businesses, which makes it a great fit for us.”

E-Max sales director Jason Pritchard notes: “It’s a fantastic opportunity for us to support local initiatives. This new course offers real value, both to students and their future employees.

“We’re delighted that more students will get the chance to experience ERP, as it is still regarded as too much of a challenge by many companies, when in actual fact ERP will reduce or remove many of the challenges they face.

“Having a knowledgeable resource in their business that they can lean on when looking at new technologies will be a major asset.”

Andrew agrees that smaller SMEs especially will benefit from this programme. “To me, the overwhelming message of Industry 4.0 is to make the best use of the available technology within your business,” he says.

“Engineering businesses have already been doing this for decades. The difference now is that we have the opportunity to develop a new generation of engineers who can not only perform an engineering role but have the ability to understand and apply current and future technology in the workplace.

“They will be a huge asset for smaller engineering SMEs who don’t have the resources to take on a dedicated IT specialist.”

The next intake for FdEng Engineering with Applied Digital Technologies commences in September 2021. Newcastle College is also looking at developing an apprenticeship programme in this area. To find out more about course options, visit ncl-coll.ac.uk.

Digital transformation ‘zone’

One local precision engineer is already recognising the value of employing students with experience in these areas.

Roger Wilson, production manager at EDM Zone, said: “EDM Zone are always looking to continually improve our business, and engineering coupled with digital technology is a perfect fit for us.

“We recognise utilising technology is the only way for us to stay sustainable as a business. We are already standardising our processes and are moving closer to having fully automated processes with E-Max ERP at the heart of this progression.

“Going forward, we’ll be using the data captured by our shop floor data collection system and ERP to create dashboards so we have instant real time information, including set-up times, cost of quality etcetera, to make strategic decisions.

“EDM Zone needs future engineers to understand ERP and MRP as these are crucial to the future of our business.

“Having a good engineering apprenticeship with digital technology training is moving us closer to our goal of being an Industry 4.0 company and will enable us to grow and tap into new market sectors.”

EDM Zone currently employs two engineering apprentices from Newcastle College.

Roger added: “Having a local college at our doorstep is great, especially as the programmes being offered really reflect the skill sets we require for our business, now and in future.”