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Homepage / My PhD to Research Fellow journey – Utilising digitisation and data to enable a sustainable future

My PhD to Research Fellow journey – Utilising digitisation and data to enable a sustainable future



The last three years has somehow sped for me – starting my PhD in Manufacturing at the Manufacturing Informatics Centre, Cranfield University to completing it at the Sustainable Manufacturing Systems Centre. I have been very fortunate to have started a role as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Competitive Creative Design (C4D) while at the point of rounding off my PhD research. Writing about the last few years in great detail but with contextual brevity is difficult; blogging about it is much harder! But I will try!

Like most PhD students, certainly international students, I had arrived at Cranfield University [after a couple of interviews] awash with fervour and idealism. Fervour because I was about to undertake a PhD. You have to be naturally inquisitive and possess an innate passion for research and idealism if you hope to begin a career in the academia at the end of your studies. While the former was not in short supply, the latter –idealistic consideration in terms of career choice – was not encouraged by the statistics I saw. Over half of doctoral students do not complete their studies for one reason or the other, an article on Chronicle revealed. Those who completed their studies would face challenging prospects and competition if they intend to remain in the academia, studies indicate. However, I was determined to at least try, despite what the numbers indicated.

Cranfield provided an excellent environment to enable that determination. From my supervisors (the most important research relationship you can make is with your supervisors! Nurture it!), to the research facilities, to like-minded high performance, driven colleagues, it was clear that the support would be provided whatever your career choice was. My understanding of research, the importance of a clear methodology and contribution to knowledge as well as the need for publishing while undertaking a PhD was clearly spelt out to all students. The early days of a PhD can be likened to the early stage of a new chore; you will have the rudimentary skill to start the chore but you will need more than the basic, rudimentary skills to properly complete it. So there were faults in my proposed objectives, methodology – almost everything! But I was told that was normal. Slowly, the focus of my research became clear to me: data-driven intelligence for a circular economy (CE).

But this was not what I had planned to study nor what I included in my proposal. I had planned on doing a research into predictive maintenance and overall manufacturing sustainability. However, a few factors determine if a research is feasible or not, key of which is the availability of data. It was clear that I was going to have issues around real-time data which I needed for my research. However, I liked the idea of “data-driven intelligence for a circular economy” and with the help of my supervisors at that time, Professor Ashutosh Tiwari & Dr Fiona Charnley, I built research around that. This time, there was some available data I could use!

Let me try to explain what the CE is. Much of the world’s economy is being run on a system where we take or extract resources, manufacture and use these resulting products and then dispose it somewhere. In a landfill if we are lucky. Manufacturing, finance, business models are locked into this system which is wasteful and clearly unsustainable in the medium to long-term. The Circular Economy, however looks at retaining resource and energy within a circular system where waste is considered at resource extraction stage, materials are kept in a loop as much as possible and as little as possible products go into landfills. My research was looking at remanufacturing, a circular approach for products that can be disassembled and how digitisation can enable this process of remanufacturing. Virtualization, de-materialization, transparency and feedback-driven intelligence are some ways this support is possible. But how and what are the critical issues surrounding these support?

Figure: (L) An operator reconditioning automotive parts in a remanufacturing shop floor. (R) A remanufactured product awaiting quality assurance. (Courtesy: PSS, United Kingdom).

Figure: (L) An operator reconditioning automotive parts in a remanufacturing shop floor. (R) A remanufactured product awaiting quality assurance. (Courtesy: PSS, United Kingdom). I spent some time at PSS factory, gaining some practical and complementary understanding of remanufacturing.

More specifically, I was using the Fuel Cell obtainable in electric vehicles and the jet aircraft as the case study product. At this stage, Dr Konstantinos Salonitis became my first supervisor and brought useful manufacturing systems input. Initially, the rechargeable energy storage system (or battery system) for these electric and hybrid cars were the case study product. However, we ran into data issues (again!) and then opted for the Fuel Cell. From this research, I was fortunate to have written some papers on digitization and the CE, understanding data-driven decision-making as well as using simulation modelling on system dynamics to support this decision-making model, where we published our results. My results included studying and validating important variables necessary for digitalising remanufacturing, as well as the impact of this digitised information in comparison to traditional forms of data. Altogether, about 5 articles and book chapters were published. This was after dealing with, and learning how to manage the rejections that come with publishing! I was also very fortunate to have won 2 research-related awards at different conferences in 2017 and 2018. I consider it a privilege to have presented and gotten feedback for my research at Greece, Australia, Stockholm and Glasgow, Scotland.

At the start of my third year, I began applying for academic roles and I got mixed responses – largely positive, I must add. However at the same time, an opportunity also opened up at Cranfield for an EPSRC sponsored Research Assistant/ Research Fellow position and I applied and went through an interview process. I was fortunate to have gotten the role –you can imagine my excitement when it was confirmed. Naturally, I internalise excitement (pretty boring, I know), but this was different.

Based at the Cranfield Centre for Competitive Design, my research is focused on investigating how data, acquired through the latest advances in digital technologies can shape decisions about the manufacture and utilisation of engineering products to accelerate the implementation of more circular approaches in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We would be developing novel ways in mathematically characterising and linking data streams to circular value. In the lead researcher role, I will be working with colleagues from the University of Sheffield, colleagues at Cranfield, as well as a number of industrial partners. Already, the research has commenced and my PhD research was an ideal platform to start it. C4D is a beautiful spot as it shares proximity with Cranfield Airport. Like almost everyone at Cranfield, I love planes! The competence which C4D brings to the project is key as we have a mix of important disciplines.

I guess this is where I try to summarise the “do’s and don’ts” for this type of progression, using my experience. Every PhD journey is an individual one. What is cliché is that it is tough and demanding, this is very true. You need to have a passion for research. However, it demands a consistency of hard work, making the most of all opportunities you find and have. Cranfield University will certainly put these opportunities within your reach, but getting it will be your duty. I work till late; you will have to if you want to excel in your research. I always ended my day thinking about current and potential opportunities – then I started the next day chasing them. Your supervisors like this sign of resourcefulness and will be happy to work with you beyond your PhD research. The PhD will stretch you and there is likely to be more disappointing moments than exciting ones; the feedback you will receive, especially when you think you’ve put in the work, may not be as nice. However with consistency and hard work, the results will show and you will put yourself in good position for a postdoctoral research opportunity. And please, publish, publish and publish [tough maybe, but start from somewhere!]

If you are interested in studying a research degree at Cranfield – either by undertaking a bespoke research project, applying for one of our research degrees or by considering one of our funded research opportunities, visit our website. 

Okechukwu Okorie

Written By: Cranfield University

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