Burton and South Derbyshire College

Businesses are forging ever-closer relationships with further and higher education institutions as a way of ensuring that curriculums are relevant for today’s workplaces. The relationships also help to give students valuable experience and to give them ‘work-ready’ skills for when they complete their courses and head out into the world of work.

The collaboration benefits both parties in another way: it also enables innovative businesses to gain valuable feedback from colleges on new products, testing them to see how they work in real life projects.

Burton-on-Trent-based Swift-Cut Automation, a leading manufacturer of CNC cutting machines for engineering and industrial applications, approached Burton and South Derbyshire College to see if its design students could test its new bench-top plasma CNC cutter called Swifty.

Alan Swift, Managing Director of Swift-Cut Automation, also wanted students to create templates on the machine so he could show potential customers what the Swifty, which is designed to enable artists, educators and smaller workshops to carry out precision metal cutting, could achieve.

Chris Beech, head of creative industries at the college, met with Alan and it quickly became apparent that while the Swifty could be hugely beneficial to design and creative students, the machine also had potential across a number of disciplines.

Although the department already had some cutting equipment, students did not have the facility to to cut metal.

“The laser cutter is getting loads of use, with students doing lots of creative outcomes, but we were frustrated we couldn’t cut metal. We were finding the limits of what we could do with the resources we had got,” explained Chris.

Chris agreed to the Swifty in the college and developed a brief for the students.

“When we met with Alan, we discussed it further, we realised that it has more uses and that  probably more students would benefit from that brief,” he said. “That led us onto us taking the plasma cutter and piloting it and using it.”

Chris is now discussing with colleagues in the engineering department to establish how those students could benefit from the Swifty. He is also developing the curriculum to incorporate the machine and exploring options with companies the college is in partnership with.

“We are using it now, how do we make the most of that use? How do we make sense of it for those learners? Rather than just purchasing a piece of kit that might be quite nice, where does that fit in their skills and knowledge, the potential market for it? How does that give us a unique selling point for our courses?”

The beauty of the Swifty, which has been set up in a service area in the college’s 3D department, is that for the first time, it enables students studying at all levels to output designs they have created.

Previously, students’ designs would have only been output in card or wood - or would have sat as a drawing or vector within the software.

However, the installation of the Swifty has quickly transformed students’ work. Graphic designers can now see and print an image on a screen, while students working on 3D designs can output their designs to give them an understanding of how or if their product will work.

“We haven’t had the ability to output work,” explained Chris. “Designers, photographers, product designers couldn’t realistically produce an outcome. They might have designed it and might know effectively what it is going to look like. Unless they had the ability to cost it and externally source it, they couldn’t do it within the college. The resources we now have within the college means we can do that.”

Using the Swifty also enables students to build costings into their brief - essential skills that they will need in the work environment whether they are self-employed designers or working within a company.

“We are looking to partner with other companies and agencies,” said Chris. “It isn’t about the kit itself, it’s how it is used, how effectively we can learn from other people’s experiences and how we bring it into a realistic environment. We know that employers want oven-baked students to be able to go into employment after those courses.”

Josh Anderton, a design student, has used the Swifty to design a barstool comprising a concrete seat, concrete legs with metal inlays and a frame out of metal and oak.

“I want to experiment with it so that the reinforcement inside the concrete protrudes enough to give me the start to the frame and inlay the oak in the frame with sections from the reinforcement to bring it together into one piece,” he said.

The Swifty has enabled him to experiment in ways he hasn’t been able to before.

“With metal there were lots of difficulties because you had to cut it out by hand, which is time consuming, but this is much more of a rapid prototyping,” he said. “You can rattle out designs, bringing all your ideas to life very quickly.You haven’t really designed something until you know how you are going to make it.”