Great Britain has a proud heritage as a world class manufacturing base and must continue to maintain its technological competitive edge. MTA director general Graham Dewhurst discusses some of the great examples of innovation in action, ahead of MACH 2014, the UK’s largest manufacturing technologies show.

Innovation is the process of generating new ideas and bringing those ideas to life. It is arguably the most powerful weapon manufacturers have in their armoury to achieve competitive advantage. Innovative manufacturers are more productive and typically grow at twice the rate of those that fail to innovate. They also tend to be more competitive, and respond better to change. Quite simply, if a company doesn’t make time for innovation, its prospects for success and long term viability as a commercial concern are slim.

Structural changes over the last three decades have meant Britain has a manufacturing capability that is technology led and highly innovative. Our manufacturers have always led the innovation curve and today Britain is home to major players in automotive, aerospace, and other advanced engineering disciplines, as well as world leading life science and pharmaceutical companies.

The UN Statistics Division ranks Britain second globally for aerospace, and places it ninth in terms of manufacturing output. Britain is also said to be the fourth largest vehicle producer in Western Europe. Last year, it produced 1.58 million vehicles, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, with a car, van, bus or truck rolling off a UK production line every 20 seconds – more than 80% of which are exported to over 100 countries. In addition, HM Revenue and Customs estimates that our chemical and pharmaceutical industries add £20 million per day to the UK balance of trade. Alongside these established industries, new ones are developing around emerging technologies such as low carbon, industrial biotechnology, nano-technology, digital, and advanced materials such as composites.

With 2.63 million people currently employed directly in Britain’s manufacturing sector (ONS, 2013) the future of our industry depends on its ability to maintain its technological competitive edge. Engineering-based manufacturing, with its need to invest for the future and remain internationally competitive, has been leading the way back to recovery. The ONS estimates that engineering-based manufacturing industries contributed £212bn to the UK economy and accounted for £129bn of exports in 2012. In 2013 British companies investing in machine tools and related equipment at a faster pace than for most of 2012.

Machine tools are used across engineering and indirectly by almost every part of the manufacturing sector. Other aspects of manufacturing technology such as metrology (measuring) equipment and computer aided design and manufacturing systems (CAD/CAM) combine with the machines, tooling and work holding equipment to deliver complete systems that are used to make products that are part of our daily lives. Manufacturing technology is therefore fundamental to the nation’s economy.

Technology strategy takes centre stage

After decades in which it was at best unfashionable and at worst dismissed as a hangover of the past, Britain’s industrial base is now recognised as holding as important a place in the economy as sectors such as financial and professional services. The UK government is looking to rebalance the economy, rebuild supply chains and nurture artisan skills. One organisation tasked with furthering these objectives is the Technology Strategy Board.

Established in 2004 by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Technology Strategy Board was spun out of government in 2007 and became the UK’s de-facto innovation agency. Today it works across business, academia and government to help companies take ideas through to commercialisation by providing access to finance, knowledge, skills and equipment.

The Technology Strategy Board is overseeing creation of a network of world leading technology and innovation centres known as ‘Catapults’ and covering a range of sectors – High Value Manufacturing; Satellite Applications; Cell Therapy; Offshore Renewable Energy; Future Cities; Transport Systems; and the Connected Digital Economy. Total public and private sector investment in the Catapults to date is £1.4bn, while a commitment has been made to invest in two new Catapults in 2015/16 – an Energy Systems Catapult, and a Diagnostics for Stratified Medicine Catapult.

The High Value Manufacturing Catapult is building on the strength of seven constituent institutions, one of which, The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has been a great example of ground-up collaboration between academia, industry and government. Established in 2001, it provides a centre for advanced machining and materials research for aerospace and other high value manufacturing sectors.

As a £15m collaboration between the University of Sheffield and Boeing, AMRC has since received support from Yorkshire Forward and the European Regional Development Fund, as well as other commercial partners including Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Messier-Bugatti-Dowty.

Bringing supply chains together

In its first year, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult was involved in 830 projects and engaged with almost 2,000 small and medium sized enterprises that otherwise would not have had access to support from major manufacturers, AMRC resources and expertise. Indeed, this is what’s so important about the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – it ties all of the members of the UK supply chain together – from the global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), prime contractors (primes) and tier-one suppliers providing both expertise and investment, through tier two, three and four suppliers, to academia.

Some great ideas come out of academia, and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult is now helping to move those ideas very quickly and effectively into the market through more collaborative business models across the supply chain. Although there has been some frustration amongst smaller players in respect of gaining access to the support networks offered through developments like the Catapults, it is hoped that as collaboration between institutions grows, best practice will be shared more widely. Certainly, the Catapults represent a win-win scenario, whereby Britain’s engineering and science graduates and apprentices are nurtured in a high-technology and innovative environment that will ensure they are fit for purpose when they enter the global economy. A prosperous high-tech UK manufacturing industry depends and thrives on a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce, so a strong foundation of trained staff and well educated students will enable the UK to continue to successfully compete on the international stage.

A further benefit of the Catapults is that they are helping to transform the public perception of scientists and engineers. Students and apprentices are gaining first hand experience in state of the art environments and cutting edge industries such as clean tech, where you are more likely to require a lab coat than the grease covered blue overalls so beloved of TV producers.

Integration and innovation

New ways to realise design and new modes of production are changing the way products are made. Coming under the umbrella term of ‘advanced manufacturing’, we are seeing the implementation of innovative technology to improve products and processes from design, concept and prototyping, through machining of raw material to delivery of the finished product. Such technologies include: computer-aided design (CAD) for developing designs; computer aided manufacturing (CAM) for translating CAD information for production; as well as controls such as material flow, testing, storage and retrieval systems. We are also seeing greater adoption of new technologies such as additive manufacturing. Also known as ‘3D printing’, additive manufacturing is a technology where products are built layer by layer rather than by subtractive machining. In metals the technology works by using a high powered laser to fuse fine powders into 3D objects, direct from 3D CAD data.

One of the most exciting developments in this area is the ‘Amaze project’, which launched recently at the Science Museum in London. An acronym for ‘Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste and Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products’, the Amaze project brings together 28 institutions to develop new metal components that are lighter, stronger, and cheaper than conventional parts. Tungsten alloy components that can withstand temperatures of 3,000C were unveiled at the launch, while the European Space Agency (ESA) said that printing metal parts for rockets and planes would cut waste and save money. Although additive manufacturing is being adopted on a relatively small scale at present, it has the potential for rapid growth and companies leading the space such as Renishaw and EOS (Electro Optical Systems) – will be exhibiting at MACH 2014.

Process innovations

Advanced manufacturing also encompasses manufacturing processes and techniques such as Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, total quality management (TQM), and supply chain management. These technologies are being adopted by leading manufacturers in order to realise greater flexibility and speed in manufacturing practices, as well as to improve quality and visibility across the supply chain. This is essential as global OEMs and primes continue to push for greater efficiencies, and ensure rapid response and a much shorter time-to-market. Much of the innovation we are seeing today in advanced manufacturing technology is around processes rather than hardware. For example, with the design and prototyping done in the office, the software can be downloaded direct to the machine tools, and the manufacturing process controlled and refined remotely. Any kind of non-conformative errors acquired through measurement for example, can now be addressed by downloading further adjustments into the machine tool, as it is working, to realise consistency in manufacture.

Advanced manufacturing is much more than improving process and product on the shop floor. It’s about applying these techniques across all areas of the business – including R&D and design, as well as marketing and distribution of final product. Integration of the supply chain, for example, entails bringing members across the chain into the planning cycle of the manufacturer. This way, distributorships are constantly feeding information back that helps manufacturers shape future product development strategy – a technique known as ‘demand pull’. Even full vertical integration of the supply chain is considered to be a form of advanced manufacturing and there are manufacturers that now collect every piece of information just once for use throughout their business.

Glasgow-based Castle Precision for example, is a British turnkey supplier of complex machined components and assemblies to multinational customers. It has developed a sophisticated and bespoke IT system that integrates every aspect of its business into one unified core, enabling it to apply lean manufacturing techniques using a real-time management information system. As a SME itself, Castle Precision will be exhibiting at MACH this year, providing an opportunity for other smaller players to gain insight into what can be achieved using hi-tech innovations.

Step change not revolution

While much has changed in engineering and manufacturing over the past fifteen years, it is important to recognise that this is an industry where innovation drives constant evolution rather than revolution. Mechanical engineering is governed by the laws of physics, so any advances are a step change rather than ‘big bang’ discoveries. This is perhaps one reason why the sector has in the past struggled to capture the imagination of the younger generation.

One example is the worm gear developed in 1957 that is 98.5% efficient. Today, this design has yet to be improved upon, but the point is that when this level of efficiency has been realised, why waste time and effort attempting to better it? As a more recent example, there are some fantastic technologies being developed for the wheels on the Bloodhound SuperSonic Car (SSC), the British-led project to break the world land speed record. Yet ultimately, these wheels still need to be round.

Nevertheless, mechanical engineering and manufacturing provide long-term and exciting careers, where white coats and clean techs have replaced the blue coats and outdated smoke belching technologies of the past. Despite being ignored for some time, the innovators have continued to innovate, ensuring Britain still boasts truly world class and high value added industries. In terms of value, we are number two globally for aero engines and wing technologies, we’re making big strides in nanotechnology, and we have a world class oil and gas sector.

At the same time, there is now a definite willingness by government to support manufacturing, both in the form of the Catapults, tax efficiencies for R&D and the Patent Box scheme. The results of this renewed focus are starting to be felt across the UK manufacturing industries. According to research published earlier this year by The Manufacturer, spending on R&D across manufacturing sectors represents 72% of all business R&D investment in the UK.

Furthermore, Britain is once again one of the most attractive locations globally as a base for high-value and innovative manufacturers – as evidenced by the decision of global precision engineering company Renishaw to purchase the 193 acre Miskin site near Cardiff from Robert Bosch Limited last year. Renishaw has invested £15 million in its manufacturing operations at the Miskin site to date, and plans to capitalise on the site, building a new business park targeting engineering and logistics firms and their supply chains.

Smaller companies too are playing an essential role in driving innovation and with better access to finance and support from across the supply chain, will continue to flourish. When combined with closer links between education and enterprise, Britain’s manufacturing industries are in an ideal position to maintain their competitive edge.