The UK has a proud history and tradition of manufacturing and we recognise our contribution across key global industry sectors such as aerospace, automotive, space and technologies that support the energy sector. However, we must continue to work hard and look to the future in order to continue to enjoy success in these areas.
Having recently taken on the role of Head of High Value Manufacturing at Innovate UK, I continue to be impressed by the scale and innovation that I see. Coming from an aerospace background, I was aware of some of the areas in which the UK was strong and internationally recognised, such as the design and manufacture of civil aircraft wings and turbofan engines.
UK manufacturing to absorb emerging and enabling technologies
However, it has quickly become clear that there is a lot more out there that we should be justifiably proud of. The UK has key capabilities and strengths across a wide range of areas such as:
- Medical manufacturing
- Automotive industry
- Internet of Things (IoT)
- Artificial Intelligence
- Machine Learning
- Chemical and process industries
- Industrial bio-technology
- Electronics and semi-conductors
- Manufacturing of highly complex products eg aircraft carriers and submarines
It is widely reported that we are now entering the 4th Industrial Revolution, characterised by the convergence of the physical and digital worlds and with widespread adoption of technologies such as robotics, 3D printing and artificial intelligence. We therefore need to ensure that the UK and its manufacturing sector are well prepared to take advantage and reap the benefits of these new technologies.
New digital manufacturing technologies will boost UK economy
Using these new digital technologies makes companies more agile and better equipped to respond to or take a lead in the quick pace of changing consumer demands, supplier conditions and technology availability. The adoption of these technologies across value chains can not only boost productivity for the companies and sectors involved, but for the entire UK economy.
Opportunities exist for new entrants into traditionally closed or restricted sectors, using technology to break down barriers to entry. Large companies will be challenged to look beyond their traditional supply chains and potentially embrace and collaborate with a new generation of high growth companies. There are also opportunities for increased flexibility with factories able to adapt more rapidly to changing consumer demand or broaden the range of products they are able to offer.
We have already started to consider this challenge and the mechanisms by which we can support companies looking to scale-up and seize this opportunity to gain a march on global competition. We also recognise the need to link up key UK strengths in academia with the manufacturing industry to enable the commercialisation of these new technologies.
Public sector support for UK manufacturing innovation
Innovate UK specifically supports the UK manufacturing sector by running funding competitions which focus on:
- Innovation in a manufacturing system, technology, process or business model – for example in process engineering, industrial biotechnology, mechanical conversion processes, coatings, textiles, supply chain management, new product introduction processes, remanufacture
- Innovation in materials development, properties, integration or reuse – for example for light-weighting, energy generation and storage, electronics/sensors, or for operation in demanding environments.
To date we have run 3 of these competitions, each offering total funding of £15m, and with an exceptional response (both quality and quantity) from the UK manufacturing community. Moving forward we will look to build on the success of these competitions looking at how best they can be adapted to serve the needs of this vital part of the economy.
Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to boost UK manufacturing innovation
The announcement of the government’s £4.7 billion injection into research and development, including the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) will provide further confidence to industry to invest in the new technologies that can help them to transform their businesses.
Coordinated by Innovate UK and the Research Councils, the ISCF is the greatest single increase in government research and development funding for almost 40 years, and will deliver the science that business needs to build on our industrial strengths and deliver economic impact, jobs and growth right across the country.
Physical centres to demo innovations
As well as these funding mechanisms we also continue to support the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. This network of 7 technology and innovation centres engages with companies large and small and with academia to accelerate new concepts towards commercial reality, supporting the creating of a sustainable manufacturing future for the country.
The centres offer access to leading edge equipment, expertise and an environment that encourages collaboration and innovation.
Connecting manufacturing innovation to collaborators
We also work closely with colleagues in the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) to connect businesses with the right manufacturing partners, expertise, facilities, financiers and influencers that can help them bring their ideas to market.
Recognising the importance of regional collaboration and the need to ensure that we support innovation wherever it exists in the country the past year, we have launched a new network of regional managers across the eight English regions as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
They have proved invaluable in driving manufacturing innovation strategy thinking in each of their regions and with our stakeholders. For example, we now have a greater understanding of where different areas of manufacturing are strong in the UK and who the key stakeholders are, allowing us to connect more directly with businesses.
We also engage with key industry trade bodies such as EEF and Gambica to further ensure that our support is targeted at the right areas.
I'll be talking at the FT Future of Manufacturing event 3/10 - come and join in the conversation.
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