Dr Nicola Symonds


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Interview with Nicola

nC² Engineering Consultancy is one of a number of University in-house Enterprise units that enable industry clients to harness Southampton’s engineering expertise and state-of-the-art facilities.

Dr Nicola Symonds has led nC² since its formation in October 2015, during which time it has developed into a thriving consultancy unit with a highly respected team and worldwide impact. Here Nicola talks about her role as Director of the unit, and the added value nC² brings to its clients and to the University.

What does nC2 do?

nC2 gives companies access to specialist knowledge and facilities in the field of materials engineering, surface science, tribology (the science of friction, wear and lubrication of parts that move against one another) and failure analysis. We can draw on a range of expertise and equipment to design solutions tailored to each client’s needs. So, for example, if a company wants to find out which coating offers the best protection in certain environmental conditions, or why a machine component keeps wearing out, we can help.

What makes nC2’s services distinctive?

At nC2 we have analytical equipment and expertise that typical test houses don’t have. This means we can look at and measure things to a very high level of accuracy and provide a lot more interpretation. We can give clients an understanding not just of how a material behaves in particular conditions, but why.

For example, most commercial test houses have equipment that can test for wear on a surface and gives the client a figure that shows how much of the material was lost. We can do the same test, but we can also use our state-of-the-art profilometry and microscopy equipment to explain why the wear is occurring, helping them to improve their product.

Added to that, we offer failure analysis, which is my own specialist field. We can find out why something has failed and do further tests to see which material would be better suited to the component or product to avoid the problem in the future. So rather than just saying “this is the problem”, we can say “this is the problem and here’s how you can solve it”. It’s a complete package and clients seem to like that.

What do you see as the consultancy’s key achievements to date?

Our clients are coming back to us again and again – since 2019 we have consistently seen 75 per cent of our business being from repeat clients, and this is not just the first or second time they have come back to us, but the seventh or eighth time. That’s a key achievement for us and a validation that we’re doing things right.

We’ve built up a client base that ranges from small, UK-based enterprises to multimillion-pound companies, and our impact is international – we could be solving a problem relating to an aircraft part that will be used all over the world, or helping to improve a component for an oil well in Mexico.

In addition, while we’re not driven by the requirement to make big profits, we are contributing to the University’s finances – we have turned over more than £1.7m to date, covering our costs and more.

What does your role entail?

A bit of everything! As Director my role is to take the unit forward, and, with the team, decide on the direction we want to go in and the client groups we want to target. I liaise with the University, manage the staff, and I also work in the labs on client projects. Although we’re part of a large university we are a small unit, so we are responsible for our own marketing, admin, recruitment and so on.

What prompted the establishment of nC2?

The idea was to consolidate and build on the tribology and materials science consultancy already happening at the University. When I moved from a career in industry to the University’s National Centre for Advanced Tribology at Southampton (nCATS) in 2011, I immediately began doing some industry consultancy alongside my research. Other nCATS researchers were doing the same, but all these projects relied on individuals’ contacts – if the researcher became too busy to take on a project, the connection with the company would be lost.

Through nC2, the University could bring this work together, promote it and put quality procedures into place, with a core staff who would always be available to respond to industry enquiries. Thanks must go to Professor Clint Styles, now Managing Director of the Future Towns Innovation Hub, who stepped up as Managing Director of nC2 for its first year; his vision lay the foundations of our successful business plan.

We secured our first project in autumn 2015 – a failure investigation for BAE Systems looking at an erosion problem on a ship impeller – and we have been growing and developing ever since.

What appealed to you about the Director role?

My original plan when I came back to the University (I completed my BEng and PhD here in the 1990s) was to do some research projects, working part time while my children were small, and then go back into industry.

When the opportunity at nC2 came up I knew it would be a lot of hard work, but I also knew I would enjoy the challenge. Failure examination is my passion and this job allows me to use my skills in that area. For example, I conduct work for the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and Marine Accident Investigation Branch, where my expertise contributes to understanding and learning from accidents and hopefully prevent them from happening again. That’s a source of great personal satisfaction for me – being able to use my skills for good.

Alongside this, the role gave me the autonomy to draw a team together and develop what we offer, which has been really satisfying.

How has the nC2 team developed?

Initially the consultancy team comprised myself and Dr Jelili Bello, an expert in abrasive and erosive wear. Later we hired Dr Spencer Court, a specialist in corrosion control who came to us from industry. Then Dr Ilaria Corni joined us; she heads up our applied research arm, which includes liaising with companies who are looking to pursue industry-led research grants such as Innovate UK grants. We have just hired a technician to assist with testing to help free up the senior consultants’ time for higher-level analysis as our workload increases.

To give us added flexibility, we also have a growing pool of experts in different areas of materials science that we can draw on depending on clients’ needs.

How does the unit’s work benefit the wider University?

From the University’s perspective, nC2’s main purpose is winning the hearts and minds of industry. By helping clients to solve a problem when they really need it, we’re consolidating the University’s reputation and creating goodwill that will hopefully serve the University well further down the line. Perhaps the next time a company is hiring they will view Southampton graduates favourably, or if a research call goes out the University will be at the front of their mind as a partner to link with.

Being a consultancy unit helps us to make connections with many more companies than would be possible through academics’ industry research projects – in the last five years we’ve worked with over 70 companies.