Where the future begins

Science graduates needn't go to the City or abroad to find work - just to Cambridge. Roger Trapp reports
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In a few short years, mobile phones have moved from a rich man's plaything to everyday convenience. But it is generally reckoned that this is just the beginning of the evolution. Such are the advances in technology that phones could soon be packed with many more features.

In an effort to work out what additions might be possible or practical, a team of engineers in Cambridge has developed computer-based simulations of the personal communications system of the future. The scenarios enable them to obtain a much better idea of how a potential product might work than can be done with the scale models.

It is, says Cambridge Consultants, just one example of how a multi-disciplinary approach brings advantages to companies worldwide. It also shows that the nation's best science graduates do not have to head for the City and devise financial derivatives to find fulfilling work in their own land.

Engineers work mainly on specific products for clients, "But at times they work with members of other groups to develop things in house," says Stephen Eason, head of the organisation's product definition group. "We try to point the technology in the right direction as far as the user is concerned. Rather than thinking of technology as an unstoppable juggernaut, we're trying to understand what consumers are going to be looking for."

As part of this work of improving "user interfaces" (methods of making machines work). Mr Eason and his colleagues spend a lot of time in consumer electronics stores studying how they are arranged and watching how customers react to products.

There are a "critical few seconds" in which a member of the public will pick up a product in a shop and play with it. If they understands how it works in that time, there is a chance that they will buy it, he says, adding that the history of product development is littered with good products that did not sell because they could not make that vital link with the consumer.

Since growing out of the university more than 30 years ago, Cambridge Consultants has given this sort of assistance to companies in a variety of industries, giving it a turnover last year of nearly pounds 19m. Many clients do not wish to be named because they are protective of the advantages they feel they have been given, but others include the consumer electronics company Philips, London Underground and the European instrumentation company Landis & Gyr.

According to the managing director, Howard Biddle, clients use the firm - which since 1972 has been part of the US-based technology consulting firm Arthur D Little - "for a variety of things". These range from assistance with making a "step change" rather than an incremental development in technology to introducing fresh ideas.

The latter is perhaps the most powerful service that an organisation like Cambridge Consultants can offer companies with stretched resources seeking to advance in competitive markets. The firm has about 300 highly trained engineers and product designers itself and - thanks to the link with Arthur D Little - can plug into many more around the world.

The average age of these people is about 30. Many have postgraduate qualifications, and Mr Biddle admits the atmosphere is something of a hothouse. But having so many like-minded people in one place is highly conducive to innovation, he says.

Though the premises on the science park north of the city have expanded in something of a ramshackle fashion lately, the organisation seeks to create conditions - such as free coffee machines and a free canteen - that encourage staff to gather together and discuss ideas informally as well as in formal settings.

"It's very vibrant," says Mr Biddle. "Most people join us because we're certainly not doing the same sort of products day in, day out."

Though many staff have studied at other prestigious universities, close links with Cambridge colleges ensure a supply of suitable recruits. Some personnel are also hired for their experience in industry. But with engineering recently falling from favour among students, it is not always possible to find the right blend of skills, even though a scheme started about 10 years ago is helping to redress that balance.

The firm takes on about six people a year as technical scholars who are between school and university. They spend the summer vacations with the organisation, with some joining full-time on graduation and others heading into industry in the hope that they will return later. All have achieved almost perfect A-level results. "It's a bit daunting," says Mr Biddle.

He and his colleagues are starting to make more of the Arthur D Little link, even as a lure to graduates who want to travel. But he is keen to recruit more people from continental Europe and has begun setting targets in this area: "We're a bit too English," he says.