The National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering

Ahead of the launch of the new National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering on the 18th October, we caught up with Chris Dales who gave us an inside look at the NCEFE and what it’s taken to get a project of this size to the finishing line.

How long have you been at Hallam, and what is your role?

I’ve been at Sheffield Hallam University for 13 years. My current role is Senior Project Manager in the Estates and Workplace Development team which forms part of the Estates & Facilities directorate. The responsibilities of the team predominantly revolve around the management of construction projects across the University estate, from office decorations and electrical socket relocations to major building refurbishments and the construction of new buildings.

How did you get involved in the project?

I was first brought into the NCEFE project in 2015 initially to manage the procurement of the Consultant Design Team and the design processes. My role was then extended to take the project through to construction and occupation.

Can you provide a bit of background to the project, and why there is a need for such a facility?

Firstly it is important to understand that the ‘Engineering’ in NCEFE is referring to the roboticĀ side of engineering rather than the food chemical engineering side, ie: it is research into the equipment required within the food industry rather than the food itself. A lot of this research will be geared towards efficiencies, which in turn will lead toward a food industry with a smaller negative impact on the environment. This is why the NCEFE appears to stand separately to the other areas of food research within Hallam. Within the Food Industry, it is recognised that there is a shortage in both the specific engineering skills, and the facilities to conduct such research, and therefore Hallam was successful in bidding for various funds to create the NCEFE to fill this gap. This has meant that we have been designing and building a very unique and bespoke facility, which in turn means that there have been no existing research facilities to use as a blueprint, and so it’s been a steep learning curve for the Project Team. This has meant that the whole process has taken a lot longer; the briefing period took the best part of 12 months of consultation with End-Users and the food industry. This was followed by 18-month design, whilst constantly re-visiting the consultation period to ensure we were still on track to produce a facility to meet the industry requirements, and then roughly a 12-month build period.

What have been some of the challenges of getting the NCEFE to this point?

All construction projects are pulled in three directions – cost, time and quality. Usually, one of these factors will outweigh the other two and become a challenge to the project. On this particular project, all three were significant challenges which manifested themselves in a large number of ways from day-to-day detailed design decisions, to high-level Project Execution Plan decisions.

In order for the funding bid to be successful, the cost of the facility had to remain very competitive. However, given the industry in which the facility is going to be operating, the quality had to be nothing less than perfect. Finally, the funding constraints were very time-bound meaning that we were constantly working against the clock. This all meant that the development of the project was very unique to Hallam.

The Project Team chose to undertake a two-stage tender process for procuring the Principal Contractor. Whilst this was a first for Hallam and therefore came with its own set of challenges and risks, it meant that the Building Contractor was able to influence the design at an earlier stage, thereby reducing the overall programme further down the line.

The Project Team was also working on the design before the location for the proposed facility had been agreed. This again had its challenges and risks but was offset by the ability to re-assess the location to best-fit the facility.

What will the NCEFE mean for Hallam and the region as a whole?

The NCEFE is a facility for Hallam to be proud of. I see it being a cutting-edge ‘go-to’ research facility for the food industry.

Students will be able to get real hands-on experience in the operating of food industry equipment. This is the only building within the entire Hallam Estate where students will be taken into the building’s plantrooms and shown how to operate the ‘heart’ of a real-life facility.

As well as the unique hands-on experience the NCEFE will give our students, the Food Industry will be attracted to invest in Hallam to conduct research that cannot feasibly be conducted in their live production facilities.

Just across the road from the NCEFE, the AWRC (Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre) will soon be coming on-line and the two facilities are making a real Hallam presence to one of the gateways to Sheffield. Together with the Olympic Legacy Park, Sheffield Hallam University is leading the way towards building a stronger community by helping with the rejuvenation of this part of Sheffield.