Engineering Non-Linearity through focused collaborative research

A UK University-Industry Knowledge Exchange project aimed at creating advanced and applicable structural engineering tools by exploiting University-Industry cooperation to the fullest
A UK University-Industry Knowledge Exchange project aimed at creating advanced and applicable structural engineering tools by exploiting University-Industry cooperation to the fullest

The Universities of Sheffield, Bristol, Cambridge, Southampton and Swansea have, since 2012, collaborated with industrial stakeholders from aerospace, automotive, civil,  and power generation, to create new design tools for applications with nonlinear behaviour. The aim of the project was to create a step change in the understanding and exploitation of nonlinearity by developing novel techniques for design of applications. The design tools, validated within the project on a series of demonstrators, should enable a transformation in the performance of future structural systems.

Process Main Stages: 

The first stage included the definition of the specific themes for each of the research groups involved in the project. The selection of these themes was based on the expertise the academic teams and the need to address issues of direct relevance to industry. Suitably-qualified post-doctoral researchers and Ph.D students were recruited. Next, the researchers focused on creating a solid theoretical basis on which to perform the research activities. This included conducting a full literature search, which remained ongoing, throughout the project. From the kick-off meeting, and during each of the annual project review meetings, the Steering Group (including experts from industry) guided the project activities towards applications of industrial relevance. This direct interaction enabled the definition of specific areas of application of Industrial relevance with respect to each of the specific themes identified initially.

Touchpoints & Bottlenecks: 

The direct interaction between the different parties involved proved to be one of the main success factors of the project. In this context, a range of touchpoints were utilised, namely, direct communication between researchers (including regular phone calls and emails when not working in the same location); annual technical workshops, during which the researchers presented their new advances; and regular partner visits to the industrial partner’s sites to understand the issues to be addressed in practice. Moreover, each year, a 2-day Progress and Review meeting was held, during which the Management Committee, Steering Committee and researchers presented and discussed the work. The quality was assessed with respect to the objectives of the project. In each meeting, a key focus was the extent to which the theoretical advances will enable practical application to solve issues of relevance to Industry and Society, as a whole.

Success Factors / Barriers: 

A key success of the project was the creation of a network of experts in the areas of non-linear structural dynamics from UK universities and companies including AIRBUS, Agusta-Westland, DNV, EDF, ESI, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, Rolls-Royce, Schlumberger, and Stirling Dynamics, where the issue of non-linearity is an important and potentially critical issue. Interaction between researchers was encouraged and facilitated throughout, making the dynamics of the whole group one of the strongest aspects of the project. Another success was the education and training of the researchers involved, with 13 obtaining full-time faculty positions in universities, across the UK and Europe. The main barrier to success was the technical difficulty from the extremely complex nature of the dynamics of non-linear systems. Also, the turnover of qualified research staff did influence the speed at which the project progressed.


The mechanism for collaboration between Universities and Industry, developed and applied within the Engineering Non-Linearity project is of considerable interest in terms of enabling academic research (with TRL in the range 2-4) to be focused on issues of relevance to Industry and Society. In practice, all of the public funding (with the exception of the travel expenses to refund the Industry members of the Steering Committee for their participation at meetings) has been utilised to conduct the research at the five Universities in the consortium. Nevertheless, by participating in the Steering Group meetings and frequent workshops, which were organised, the Industrial partners, from a wide range of sectors, are able to guide the activities towards applications of direct relevance to their sector based on their expertise. In so doing, the academic research has been focused on societal issues without losing its high-level, high-quality academic nature.

Importantly, all the salient results of the activities have been presented in a series of high-level journal articles and conference proceedings, according to the Open Science approach. Furthermore, the intention is to write a book to document all of the activities performed upon project completion.

The final conclusion that this type of instrument could also be adopted more widely in EU Framework Programmes so as to foster academic research of relevance to Industry and Society.

  • Ensure the quality of the expertise of the research groups involved. (In this case, each of research groups involved already had a world-renowned reputation in the field of structural dynamics and non-linear systems analysis);
  • Ensure that each researcher is able to commit to at least 12 months full-time activity so as to avoid a high turnover of researchers which may generate inefficiencies (i.e. both quality and continuity of the post-doctoral researchers working full-time on the activities of the project was key to success);
  • Select the Industry members of the Steering Group carefully with respect to their technical knowledge and experience (in this case, the ability to understand structural dynamics and the analysis of non-linear systems in depth).
  • Ensure that the ‘network effect’ is maintained by a providing a regular programme of technical workshops and training activities; (this included special sessions at conferences, and events hosted at industry partner locations).
  • Ensure that the online activities are strong. This included using a web-based meeting tool (GoToMeeting in this case) for regular (i.e weekly) interactions of team members for both management and collaborative purposes. Also a good website, and other online resources including Open Science (i.e. papers and data) is important. The final book is planned to be open access also.​