Advanced manufacturing must sit at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy

The government must support more collaboration between academia and industry in the North of England.

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As the former chief executive of the Centre for Cities, Alexandra Jones has significant understanding of the ways in which devolution and place-based policies could stimulate innovation, growth and social regeneration. For advanced manufacturing in the North of England, then, it is highly encouraging that Jones has been appointed director of Industrial Strategy at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It’s a move that signals and strengthens the government’s commitment to extending the place-based approach to economic and social renewal.

For the Northern Powerhouse and the city regions that are affiliated with it, this approach means they will have to learn to collaborate and innovate; they will need to stop behaving like political fiefdoms, and start to operate as a network of closely connected hubs, driving change and innovation across the economic base.

The model for this is to be found not in politics but in the work of the High Value Manufacturing Catapults, the most successful of all the government’s Catapults. The seven centres, including the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the Nuclear AMRC in the Sheffield City Region are a connected network that provides innovation capability and technical expertise to manufacturing brands with global reach and reputation.

The HVM Catapult has already attracted £739m of external commercial and R&D funds leveraged from a total core funding of £330m. The combined effect has delivered over £1bn of new R&D in the UK – vital at a time when the industrial strategy has set the stretching target of increasing this investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.

But this is not just about investment. It is about the impact this investment is having on productivity. And this is where catapult centres like the AMRC are making perhaps the biggest impact. Our collaboration with the likes of Boeing and Rolls-Royce – and almost the entire aerospace supply chain – has led to game-changing improvements in productivity.

In the case of Rolls-Royce, our work supporting the efficient manufacture of fan discs for their jet engines not only prevented the work being offshored, but gave the company the confidence to invest more than £100m in a purpose-built facility in Washington in the North East, protecting thousands of skilled jobs.

The groundbreaking manufacturing techniques we developed included the introduction of automation as well as the latest advanced platforms for machining, grinding, broaching and inspection processes which “reduced the time it takes to manufacture a disc by 50 per cent while producing a step-change in component performance.”

The state of the art facility, Rolls-Royce added: “makes use of manufacturing methods developed at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). The AMRC is part of a network of research centres which aim to work with businesses to apply university research to accelerate the commercialisation of new and emerging manufacturing technologies.”

That was four years ago. And that was largely machining. What Rolls-Royce and other high performing manufacturers realise, however, is that the application of digital technologies – from robotics and automation to augmented and virtual reality – are changing the face of manufacturing at such a speed that they need to stay connected with research and innovation partners such as the AMRC and the other HVMCs if they are to prevail.

For us, being close to our partners is key to understanding the dynamics of the marketplace and aligning this to technological innovation. That is why, with government support, we invested £43m in our Factory 2050, the place where digital meets manufacturing.

The beauty of a centre like Factory 2050 is that the problems we have been addressing in aerospace are similar, if not identical, to the ones we now see facing the construction and automotive industries, and the energy and water sectors. This means that the applications we are developing for high performing global companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Airbus, are equally applicable to the long tail of underperforming small and medium-sized firms (SMEs) who comprise the majority of the UK manufacturing base.

Factory 2050 has a talented team of 60 engineers with an average age of under 30. Some of these young men and women, many drawn from gaming degrees with little understanding of traditional manufacturing, don’t know the half of how effective they are.

Robot programmes, concocted over the course of an afternoon are changing the game for SMEs; iPad apps written over the course of a couple of days are revolutionising major aerospace OEMS. If productivity and impact is the name of the game, automation and digital manufacturing is the strategy.

Recently, engineers in our integration team developed a vision system algorithm for aero engines that is now being used in furniture manufacture for a small Yorkshire business that employs just 20 people. This firm had ambitions to grow. They had a feeling that robotics could help them, but weren’t sure how best to deploy. Our intervention has enabled them to understand the technology and exploit it to its full potential.

The impact on firms like this is hard to overstate. It changes the business for good; gains access to new markets; enables the development of new products; opens the door to new jobs and skills. When we measure the impact of these interventions we often find two- or three-fold gains on installing a piece of kit or capability. That’s what attracts industry partners to the AMRC. 

The hurdle to rolling this out further is not technological, but political. If the Northern Powerhouse wants to live up to its name, and move out from under its parents’ shadow, it must stop looking to the South for solutions: we already have them, we just need to apply them.

What we need is political innovation: new ways of connecting people and places; new ways of working across political boundaries and ideologies. The AMRC is a model here. We are opening hubs and spokes in the North West and North Wales, in the Midlands Engine and the Liverpool City Region, and internationally in Asia and America.

We already have an emerging research and innovation network in place. Northern political leaders should draw up a roadmap for exploiting this network to enable digital to meet more and more SMEs. The impact of this across the region – from Liverpool to Hull, Lancaster to Derby – would be transformative. Couple this with a road map for creating the skills base to meet the demand these newly digitalised firms will need as they accelerate their growth, and we would have the making of new industrial revolution.

We have the engineering, innovation and research leadership. What we need now is the political leadership to turn the Northern Powerhouse from a slogan into a reality.