Industry/University Collaboration Furthers Plumbing Research
In my last column, we considered the question of whether plumbing research exists as tested against the criterion that it should be based on an original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. I concluded it had indeed existed during the last 60 years of the last century, based on the fundamental work of Hunter and others at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Washington; Wise and his co-workers at the U.K. Building Research Establishment (BRE); and the combined efforts of the national building research institutes, which, for 20 years from the 1970s, formed the backbone of the Counseil International du Batiment Working Commission 62 Water Supply and Drainage for Buildings (CIB W62).
Changes in political ideology, however, have put "research in the common good" under pressure, and leading organizations such as NBS and BRE have largely, if not wholly, withdrawn from the arena. The university research base is limited. Well established groups such as that at Stevens Institute, Hoboken, NJ, the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Sao Paulo, at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and at universities in Japan are perhaps the last main centers.
Establishing Research PartnershipsThe research effort in plumbing must therefore re-establish its place, as well as its value, within a more competitive environment. To do this, industry partnerships must be the way forward; however, are such partnerships possible, and can the potential partners share a common vocabulary and ethos?
Experience within the Drainage Research Group at Heriot-Watt University over the past 20 years has highlighted both the best and the worst examples of university/industry collaboration. Work with London Underground (the capital's Metro system, not a resistance movement) illustrated the benefits of working with an organization whose middle management understood the value of research ethos based on their own engineering education and experience.
Mainstream civil engineers have experience with industry/university partnerships that often is denied to those working in the plumbing arm of the construction industry. However, the transient nature of the staff within such organizations can present difficulties in terms of continuity.
One of the best examples was the development of a low flush volume water closet (W.C.) for a consortium of U.K. manufacturers in the late 1970s following a series of drought events. The industrial sponsors failed to inform the university that the objective was failure so that governmental pressure to reduce flush volumes could be resisted and a status quo protectionist position defended. (Twenty years later, the U.K. market will now open to low flush W.C.s produced internationally, and the opportunity available from the 1980s to influence international water conservation is lost.) Collaboration has influenced industrial design. Our work on Air Admittance Valves is the clearest example where the mathematical modeling of low amplitude air pressure transients has directly assisted industry and end users, particularly in the development of the Hepworths dual function waterless trap and AAV.
From our experience, the most outstanding example of industry/university collaboration, in terms of shared ethos, has been working with an international Australian company over the past five years, where there has been a ready acceptance that mathematical modeling and simulation can inform design decisions.
A Common UnderstandingTherefore, we need to build a common understanding of what we do best. In order to explain this, I would like to borrow a model used by one of my professorial colleagues in his inaugural lecture, the tradition in the U.K. for appointments at this level. In discussing the application of mathematical modeling to the problems of acoustic and vibration analysis within a range of applications, from buildings to automobiles and ships to aircraft and space vehicles, my colleague postulated that design fell within two categories- "evolutionary" and "from scratch."
Industry is very good at evolutionary design, whether it be the latest developments in aircrafts with progressively enhanced operational characteristics or the development of W.C. bowls to meet water use reduction criteria. Design from scratch is more difficult, as it has no basis for decision-making unless mathematical analysis or some other form of modeling allows prediction to be undertaken
It is here that universities can assist industry and a common vocabulary can be assembled. This will require a recognition by both parties that the other has special gifts to bring to the party. Industry has experience with consumer needs and acceptance levels. The researcher has experience with analysis methods, high level experimental and data acquisition skills and solutions to analogous problems from a wider area.
This mutual recognition of each other's strengths must be accompanied by an ability to suppress knee jerk reactions: "Industry is only interested in short-term objectives"; "Universities are not in touch with the real world"; "How can all this math be relevant?" It may be necessary to balance the cost of advertising new W.C. colors in Good Housekeeping with the cost of a university's study. These costs may well lie within the same ball park.
A recent example of successful collaboration was featured in this magazine last year when the pressure surge that generated severe fracturing of a W.C. in a New York apartment building was investigated by Julius Ballanco, with the assistance of Stevens Institute. Subsequent mathematical modeling of the event by my own group out of academic interest confirmed the process identified by Julius Ballanco and the solutions proposed.
How can we generate this mutual recognition? Contact is the only viable way forward. Staff exchanges should be facilitated or doctoral researchers should find employment within the companies who participated in joint research. Industry can interact with the development of research staff by contributing with the university to the funding of research studentships over a prescribed three-year period. Heriot-Watt currently offers a range of fee waiver scholarships where, for a guaranteed input of $10,000 per year, industry can be involved with Ph.D. research with direct application to its needs while retaining the research training and educational objectives of such programs. Such initiatives recognize the role of choice in decision-making. Such schemes can develop researcher potential at the possible expense of confidentiality and more directed outcomes, pre-requisites of the traditional but more costly consultancy or joint research programs.
Recent overtures by the World Plumbing Council to become involved with the research community through CIB W62 is a welcome initiative, led by U.K., U.S. and Australian plumbing interests. Discussion and joint presentations at conferences are a valuable vehicle to facilitate contact and the development of lasting linkages. However, conferences are infrequent and costly.
A more continuous form of dialogue might rely on modern technology. A discussion site on the Web, where industry could bring its problems and researchers could discuss new initiatives, could be a mechanism, provided it was monitored and led by a reputable organization.
Such interaction would not address the confidential areas where research can be of the most benefit to industry though, as these will always depend on individual contact and mutual respect. But, it would be a way to open the discussion of global issues in areas of water conservation and drainage design, which require international input if they are to be satisfactorily addressed and solved.
Thus, there are examples of successful collaborations between industry and the university sector. These links need to be strengthened. Progress would benefit industry, academic institutions, and their research staff by making it more competitive in areas where design-from-scratch is the only viable option. Progress will require patience from both industry and university sectors; success will bring satisfaction and a feeling of relevance to both parties.
Finally, the U.K. university student admissions system has been the center of political controversy this month. Government Ministers have accused Magdalen College, Oxford (pronounced Maudlin), of class-based discrimination following the rejection of a young woman from a comprehensive school, i.e. non-selective at 11, in North East England, despite the fact that she held straight A grades in the appropriate qualifying examinations. Oxford recruits more than 50% of its students from the private school sector, despite 70% of its applicants coming from state schools. Ostensibly, the reason was that she did not display confidence on interview. However, there is a happy ending, as she has been confident enough to apply to Harvard and be offered a place, as well as a $65,000 bursary-well done Harvard!