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6 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 12:08pm

Next-generation manufacturing: a joined-up view

The UK is well placed to be a global trendsetter, says Professor Sir Mike Gregory, a former head of the manufacturing and management division of the University of Cambridge engineering department, and of the Institute for Manufacturing

By Professor Sir Mike Gregory

Manufacturing involves turning ideas and opportunities into products and services. What could be more important for an economy than engaging with the whole manufacturing cycle, from research and design through production and distribution to service and sustainability? There has been a growing realisation that this broader view of manufacturing leads to completely different conclusions about its importance and future. If it is just about “bending metal” to make conventional products, then others may do it faster or more cheaply. But if it is about ideas and innovation in complex ecosystems, then the opportunities are vast.

So how are we to take advantage of these opportunities? We need to understand not only the requirements of customers and the capabilities of competitors but also the rapidly changing world of manufacturing processes and systems: from 3D printing of complex parts to the rapid rise of composite materials for aeroplanes and cars, to the sophistication of global logistics and the digitisation of the whole chain from design to delivery.

The UK engineering group Renishaw can 3D-print parts for dentistry, providing a rapid personalised service, and complex 3D-printed parts are already flying in jet engines. Lightweight composite materials are to be found in aeroplanes, cars and wind turbines. Advances in logistics and digitisation mean that we can have products from around the world delivered to our door at the touch of a button.

Over recent years manufacturers have learned to generate and capture more and more value from their core production activities. This has been achieved by offering products with more desirable functions, offering services linked to the products and then cutting the costs of production through well-managed supply chains and novel production processes: phones that play music, computers used for shopping, and a bewildering array of goods provided in local supermarkets at previously unimaginably low prices.

Over the past decade the UK has ­quietly been building the infrastructure and capabilities to prepare for this new world of manufacturing and the opportunities it presents. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Centres for Innovative Manufacturing to generate new technologies, High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres to bridge between research ideas and industrial application, and a strategic approach to key manufacturing sectors have all helped to strengthen UK capabilities. These developments have also raised the profile of the UK internationally as a country with world-­leading manufacturing capabilities.

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The context and opportunities for manufacturing are better than they have been for decades. What more needs to be done to take advantage of these positive conditions? I would highlight three themes to which we should pay particular attention: production scale-up, sustainability and industrial systems.

Production scale-up is one of those underappreciated capabilities in manufacturing. New and successful products can command premium prices, but any manufacturer wanting to make the most of this opportunity has to increase production rapidly. Traditionally, scale-up has been the domain of tough project managers, and we certainly continue to need them. But we need to be smarter at R&D and design so that we develop products that are suitable for rapid scale-up to match demand growth. Then we need to be able to assemble the supply and distribution networks rapidly. With “smart scale-up”, manufacturers in the UK could capture significantly more value from their ideas.

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The term sustainability can be applied to the environment, the economy, or individual businesses. While there is some disagreement, almost all informed scientific opinion is unambiguously of the view that human activity is having a measurable and damaging effect on the planet’s temperature, with potentially severe consequences but also opportunities.

There are, of course, some obvious targets – the rate of domestic consumption, the environmental treatment of existing buildings, and the use of fossil-fuelled transport. Often neglected, however, is the role of industry. A reorientation of existing engineering capabilities can lead to the design of processes that are less resource and energy-hungry, factories that are more efficient and “waste” outputs of one process become the feedstock for the next.

Building on the current momentum, the UK is well placed to re-establish itself as a trendsetter in industrial sustainability. Indeed, many see the UK as a pioneer in dealing with “dirty” industries and providing a regulatory environment that is practical and effective. New sustainable production systems require new equipment and systems, which the UK has the ability to provide.

The term “industrial systems” might be a better way of representing what we mean by modern manufacturing. The emergence of new production processes, digital representation and communication, and internet-based transactions has highlighted the need to understand the implication of these rapidly changing and highly interdependent developments.

Some speak about the “industrial internet”, others the Internet of Things, and still others Industry 4.0. All struggle to capture precisely the nature and implications of rapidly evolving manufacturing systems. These movements represent a great opportunity for the UK to move beyond traditional industries and build on our global reach, research excellence and innovative capabilities. The challenge now is to co-ordinate and focus the UK’s excellent man­u­facturing innovation ecosystem to best effect.

Some modest orchestration is required if we are to capture the benefits. Of course the conductor doesn’t write the music, choose the audience or tell the players how to do their jobs. The stick is very small, but the conductor can turn what would otherwise be a cacophony into harmony, simply by providing rhythm and focus. Like all analogies this one quickly breaks down. But it remains the case that at a national level, the country’s capabilities and actors do not always have the means to self-organise to national advantage. The experience of recent years, however, suggests that they are willing to work in partnership with government for the national good.