Fostering Technical Talent
PCV Group is a product development service provider based in Enschede, in the Netherlands, and has excellent access to young professionals with a technical background. In the technology-focused city of Enschede, with the University of Twente (UT) and Saxion University of Applied Sciences, and their various different study courses, there are a number of sources of talented young people in the field of developing high-tech solutions. Mieke van den Belt, Senior Engineer and responsible for contact with students at PCV, and Fred van Dijk, one of the founders of PCV, emphasise the importance of cooperation with universities for the company in this interview.
Why does PCV work together with universities and higher education institutions?
Fred: The cooperation goes back a long way – more specifically to the founding of PCV and the two pillars of the company. Dries Nijsen and Louis Heister both studied Mechanical Engineering at the university here in Twente and in 1987, while they were still studying, they got the opportunity to start their own company under the name First Design, which later became the PCV Group. I joined them in 1992 and remember that in the early years many contacts and clients came to us through the university. That was an ideal starting point. The UT, which was known as the Technische Hogeschool Twente (THT) back then, is really where our roots lie. Our close connection has remained to this day and has even been further developed over the years. We are in contact with lecturers, specialist groups and many other experts there.
Mieke: We actively maintain these contacts and are involved in many committees, both at UT and Saxion. This allows us to come into contact with students and have direct access to promising talent. This is important in order to be able to attract highly qualified young people. In the “Careers” section on our website, you will also find a number of different offers for students. And we also show them what it’s like to work at PCV there.
Are there also international contacts?
Fred: Yes, our German partner Stefan Ostermann is a graduate of RWTH Aachen University and is very well connected there. Because of this, there are already some connections there that we would like to strengthen. In principle, we are always open to further contacts with universities and higher education institutions both in the Netherlands and abroad. It helps us a great deal that both Saxion and UT have a lot of international students enrolled, including some who are German speakers.
What form does the cooperation take?
Mieke: We offer part-time jobs for students, for example. They can also complete internships or complete their final projects with us. The internships are mainly of a technical nature and usually last five to six months. The same applies to the final projects, for example for students of Saxion or the Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in Zwolle.
Fred: It is important to mention that we also really try to get students involved even earlier. It is important to us to get secondary school students excited about technical topics. This involves students in the age group of 16 to 18, and we already offer projects for them at school. These projects can last three weeks or even longer. Recently, there was even a six-month project in which groups of four students each worked on a topic for four hours a week. Specifically, it was about the topic of the home office, i.e., setting up a workplace at home and the possibility of having it disappear again after work. One student from the group we supervise wants to become a doctor, two have chosen technical fields of study. But, in our involvement, we aren’t too focussed on exactly what they will go on to study later. The main thing is that it’s something technical (laughs).
How does PCV get involved with committees in higher education institutions and universities?
Fred: My colleague Wouter Nijland and I are active in the “Werkveldcommissie” for the Industrial Design Engineering programme at Saxion. This committee focuses on the orientation and content of studies at universities of applied sciences. The background is that we are not simply looking for students, but for students with a specific profile. By participating in these commissions, which meet around four to five times a year, we can have a say in the development of the curriculum. Primarily, we provide a practical perspective. A path that has proven itself in recent years. Technology and prototype development have become a more and more important part of studies at Saxion. And this has helped it steadily work its way to the top of the nationwide university rankings. In Zwolle, on the other hand, the development is moving more in the direction of design. We are similarly involved at UT, but a bit more broadly there. Our focus there is primarily on the two degree programmes Industrial Design – where I myself have been an accredited member of the examination board for several years – as well as Mechanical Engineering.
Are there other starting points?
Mieke: Sponsorship is also very important for us. For a number of years we have been sponsoring various different initiatives and student project teams at UT. These teams are made up of around 12 to 15 people. For example, the Electric Superbike Team Twente, which made an e-racing motorbike. Or the Solar Team Twente, which enters its own solar car in the annual World Solar Challenge, covering 3,000 kilometres across the Australian continent. There is also a Solar Boat Team. When it comes to artificial intelligence and robotics, Robo Team Twente is worth a mention. This group develops and builds autonomously acting robots that compete against other robot teams in eleven-a-side football matches.
Fred: What all these multidisciplinary teams have in common is that students are on top form in them, show their special talents there and catch our attention. This is also a context where we are interested in recruiting young people. For example, our colleague Bram Norp came from the Superbike Team. Sponsorship also boosts our level of recognition.
How do customers benefit from the different university cooperation initiatives at PCV Group?
Mieke: We have two examples that I think really show the added value for our customers. There is a project we are working on with a client and which students who are writing their final thesis within this framework are also involved with. The aim is to develop an environmentally friendly deodorant spray that requires no propellants and as little packaging material as possible. The students work on the project mostly independently, closely guided by one of our teams. Our customer specialises in spray technology, and we specialise in mechanics. This configuration works very well for us. The other example of the successful use of interns and students is internal projects, preferably in the area of coffee. They pursue aspects and concepts that are not directly related to the mission, with a focus on thinking outside the box. This gives us an opportunity to think together beyond the actual assignment, which provides exciting new starting points from which our clients also benefit. For example, we had one student who worked on image processing the visual analysis of milk foam. Once we learn more about such a topic, we can also share the related insights with clients.
Fred: Besides the fact that the cooperation initiatives give us access to promising talent, from which our clients also benefit, there are also other advantages. We are also keeping our finger on the pulse in the area of technology and innovation, especially through the specialist groups. Sticking with Mieke’s example: Image recognition in the field of image foam is complex. Cameras from the university are used for this, which we simply cannot afford. Together with the university, we have been able to construct a number of prototypes. Our customers benefit from the environment and outstanding infrastructure here in Enschede. The MESA+ Institute at UT is able to produce a “lab-on-a-chip”. Saxion has chemistry laboratories, which we have also used before.
Mieke: Yes, this is infrastructure that we do not need on a daily basis and that is not really worth maintaining. The cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences and the University is a real win-win situation.
Fred: I would also like to add another advantage. Namely, the enormously far-reaching networks UT and Saxion have, for which use we are very grateful. These are important sources of inspiration when looking for fresh ideas. When a customer comes to us with a question or a product, there is often at least one more question or level hidden behind it. At its core, it is always about developing new technology or improving existing technology. We often talk on the phone with professors and members of various specialist groups to exchange ideas in this regard.
How does the cooperation work in the other direction?
Fred: It is also excellent. In the early stages of the Covid 19 pandemic, the Dutch government also reached out to all universities in the country in light of the shortage of PPE. Among them was the UT, which in turn approached us. The main focus was on bringing new developments to market quickly. That was our starting point. In this context, we also approached other companies and worked together with them to develop a “breathing hood”. In simple terms, this is a type of plastic bag into which oxygen can be introduced to ventilate patients, connected to a breathing valve to filter viruses from the exhaled air. The hood is partly based on existing products. We were involved in testing it at UT’s TechMed Centre. And it was tested under very realistic conditions, because this facility has, among other things, fully equipped simulation and training capacities with all the facilities of an intensive care unit. Our colleague Sjors Zuidema was heavily involved in this project. The pressure equalisation in particular was a demanding challenge that was successfully mastered together. This was a great example of how quickly an innovative idea can become a product.
Mieke: Another example... Our colleague Luc Vinkenvleugel was also asked whether he could give a guest lecture on the topic of the sustainability of coffee machines. He did so and was also able to broadened the perspective to include sustainable product development as a whole. For example, this involves a trend towards more durable products that generate correspondingly less waste. In this context, some students recently presented us with their ideas for sensors that help determine the lifespan of coffee machines. For us, this is a very exciting approach that also shows how well the exchange with the universities works in both directions.