An innovative vision for UK manufacturing

Posted on 4 Apr 2012 by The Manufacturer

Andrew Peters, divisional director at Siemens Industry has a vision for the future of UK manufacturing. Here he pinpoints the trends and technologies to master for success.

“On the road to success, innovation is the tarmac – the more innovation we lay the faster we will travel,” Andrew Peters, Divisional Director, Siemens Industry

Recently we have seen an increasing spotlight on the contribution manufacturing can make to the long-term recovery of the UK economy. Many influential voices have called for more resources and support for British manufacturing in order that the country can once more take pride in making things.

However, the world is a very different place now as emerging economies, as well as the traditional powerhouses, have made the global manufacturing landscape ultra competitive. My strong belief is that if the UK is to make headway in the new world order and capitalise on fresh opportunities in new markets, playing to our strengths and having a clear focus is going to be essential and in turn, will encourage strong UK companies to deliver innovation-led manufacturing solutions, providing a platform for an optimistic future.

I recently attended the Global Manufacturing Festival which was held in the great UK manufacturing stronghold of Sheffield.  In front of an audience which included many overseas visitors, I highlighted the importance of the UK concentrating on the worldwide opportunities in new markets within reach thanks to innovative thinking taking place here.

By delivering such solutions, perceptions about UK manufacturing can start altering and this will enable us to compete in areas where in the early part of the 21st century we are best suited to succeed.

There are a number of key areas in which continued innovation, ongoing technology investment and strategic Government backing can provide real opportunity for UK companies, and, by association, benefit UK economic health. The UK is already at the forefront of delivering a number of innovative manufacturing solutions and must continue if we are to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice.

Firstly, from an infrastructure perspective, the relentless march of urbanisation – which will eventually see more than half the world’s population living in cities during this century – shows no sign of abating. As a result, issues such as meeting the needs of an increasingly aging population, energy security and supply and fit-for-purpose transport and logistics are taxing the minds of governments and civic leaders alike.

For the delivery of a sustainable and secure power future, the advantages of renewable sources are now being taken seriously, and the UK is helping shape the way offshore technology is harnessing alternative energy means.

Likewise, efforts to develop smart grid solutions which also support the use of electric vehicles are also being driven forward. The opportunity to promote such innovative technology solutions is not just confined to the needs of the British Isles, it can also be exported across the globe to help support communities as they grow and become increasingly urbanised.

Secondly, high value manufacturing innovation can also set the UK apart and provide real competitive edge. Rapid prototyping expertise used by the Formula One world champions, Red Bull Racing, is just one high profile example of an innovative technology that can reduce production and design lead times and increase manufacturing flexibility.

This is not just applicable to the fast paced world of motor racing, but also for the many manufacturing companies around the world that could benefit. Indeed, such technology has huge potential in many new markets for UK companies, including those closely related to the infrastructure mega trend identified above, such as supporting a medical profession that will have increasing numbers of older people to cater for.

Other high value manufacturing technologies have found their innovative basis here in the UK. Near net shape manufacture and fused deposition modelling are just two technology examples with the potential to support the requirements of the aerospace, defence, automotive and oil and gas sectors around the world.

Turning to the revolution that is taking place in software development, this is another prime example of how innovation can help maximise market opportunity. Today’s highly complex production processes as used for example by the aerospace and defence industries, present real challenges. The ability to integrate the use of composite materials, advanced machining technology, global supplier networks and multiple assembly sites would have enormous benefits.  Software advances can now allow this to happen.

Similarly, the clear advantages of cost and time reduction, and the vastly increased efficiencies that are inherent in innovations such as digital factory design, provide compelling evidence of the power of innovation-led software solutions for all manufacturers, be they high complexity low volume or high volume low complexity. Such solutions are being pro-actively developed by UK companies today and should be used to target opportunities as new markets emerge.

But while innovation can drive opportunity, we still require the necessary dedicated and talented workforce to deliver it in the short, medium and long term. Many in the media have spoken about the growing UK engineering skills gap, and it is a sad fact that we lag well behind other countries such as China when it comes to producing sufficient numbers of engineers to meet future needs.

However, through initiatives like the newly formed Technology Innovation Centres and the growing network of University Technical Colleges the Government is supporting a skills agenda which must be central to any sustainable UK manufacturing revival.  We must enthuse the young generation to view engineering as a stimulating and rewarding career.  In addition, as well as continuing to focus upon improvements to the stream of graduates, we should also seek to rebuild a vibrant national apprenticeship programme.

A parallel strategic investment in skills and innovation can be a powerful combination.  By focussing on what we are good at, we will have a chance of a sustainable future where low carbon, high value, UK manufacturing innovation can grasp new opportunities and compete aggressively at a global level with all the associated benefits and payback for our nation’s economy.