Catapults: supporting UK manufacturing growth

Help is at hand for manufacturers seeking to invest in R&D around product and processes to drive growth. Peter Russell, head of manufacturing and industrials at Royal Bank of Scotland investigates how the Technology Strategy Board’s Catapult Centres provide manufacturers with a sound support package to ensure innovative ideas make it from drawing boards to market, while also challenging conventional wisdom on how UK manufacturing is done.

A catalyst for innovation

Supported by RBS

With the economic recovery struggling to build momentum, it is more important than ever that UK manufacturing plays its full part in securing growth and remains both innovative and competitive. The Technology Strategy Board’s (TSB) Catapult Centres represent over £1 billion of private and public sector investment, delivering a powerful platform for UK manufacturing to get ahead of global competitors.

“Innovation will only happen when we approach it differently”, comments Will Barton, head of manufacturing at the TSB.

And the seven Catapults do just that: For the first time they bring together UK businesses with scientists from universities and specialist engineers to collaborate on R&D projects. But they are far more than R&D and consulting hubs. They also provide access to cutting-edge equipment and specialist facilities to develop and test ideas in reality for companies with limited, or no, means of taking the next steps to move from drawing board to market.

“The Catapults are about sharing resources. Most companies, for example, wouldn’t consider buying the machines the Catapult Centres can offer, because, as a single organisation, they wouldn’t be able to achieve an adequate ROI in a reasonable time,” explains Barton.

Committed to long-term growth

The High Value Engineering segment of UK manufacturing contributed £151billion to national balance of payments in 2010 and accounted for 35% of all UK exports*. It is estimated to grow at 2% to 3% per year over the next five years, faster than the projected growth of 1.5% to 2.5% for the UK economy according to RBS Group Economics – strong reason to make sure the sector stays competitive. The objective of the TSB Catapult Centres is to help double the GDP of manufacturing over the next 20 years and there is already clear evidence of converting this ambition into reality if the experiences of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, also located across seven national centres, is anything to go by.

“Demand for the HVM catapult has been beyond our expectations. The Catapult attracted over 1000 companies in its first year,” Barton says.

The HVM Catapult is part of a network of Catapult centres, located around the country:

  1. Offshore Renewable Energy (Glasgow)
  2. Cell Therapy (London)
  3. Satellite Applications (Harwell, Oxfordshire)
  4. Connected Digital Economy (London)
  5. Future Cities (London)
  6. Transport  Cities (location to be announced) will move into offices and be operational later this year

TSB catapult locations around the UK
High Value Manufacturing Catapult locations around the UK

Bristol– researching, developing and networking

One of the seven HVM Catapult centres is the National Composites Centre (NCC) located in Bristol. “Being part of the Catapult makes an enormous difference because UK manufacturers can collaborate across capability and technology disciplines, with partners that have state-of-the-art equipment, expert knowledge and who share the same vision,” comments Peter Chivers, chief executive of the NCC.

Initiated in November 2009 as a key element in the UK Composites Strategy, the NCC offers companies the platform to either use the centre facilities with state-of-the-art equipment and specialist software or to realise a more complex R&D project around composites.

With the global composites market estimated to rise to $48.7 billion by 2020 from $16.1 billion in 2012 (RBS The Future of UK High Value Engineering Report, November 2012), the NCC has seen exceptional growth. “We’ve grown from just 15 to 120 staff, and we have currently 100 staff from customers working here”, says Chivers, adding that the centre facilities usage has already reached over 80%.

Sectors supported include aerospace, marine, automotive, motorsport, rail, renewables and consumer/domestic goods. However, with the awarding of £28m for NCC Phase 2 there will be double the original space available come 2nd quarter 2014.

“We have a tremendous range of projects,” the CEO points out, starting with customers that use NCC equipment just for a couple hours and, at the other end of the scale, companies working with the NCC delivering multi-million pound R&D projects. “Whether small companies with only two staff or big internationals, we’ve been working with all of them.”

The centre hosts the country’s first robotic Automatic Fibre Placement (AFP) machine, which allows manufacturers to consistently and rapidly create complex, double curved structures in composite materials that can be used for high performance wing shapes and automotive parts.

Early indications suggest that aircraft structures created through AFP machinery could be some 20% lighter than comparable metal structures. There is also a potential 75% reduction in material wastage according to NCC research.

“Staff from member companies could develop a new product with a potential customer sitting next to them or they could get ideas how to solve a problem by learning from an organisation from a completely different sector,” says Chivers.

Coventry – ideas from all directions

His peer at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), another HVM Catapult Centre couldn’t agree more.

“We can definitely say that the Catapult has captured the imagination of the manufacturing industry”, Dr Clive Hickman, CEO of the MTC summarises. “Working with the other Catapult partners and working within the centre where companies and supply chain partners from different sectors work alongside each other, is truly inspiring. Ideas are coming from all directions,” he says, adding that the cross-centre-communication is speeding up innovation: “We’re moving much faster now.”

The MTC specialises in a range of manufacturing processes, which are applicable across industry sectors such as net shape manufacture, intelligent automation and advanced tooling. The centre supports its members developing innovative processes using the MTC facilities, proving and validating new procedures and helping with commercialising innovations.

The MTC’s turnover has grown from £0.6m in the first year to £17 million last year. It now counts 50 members, 160 staff and up to 100 engineers from customers’ says Hickman. He continues: “the MTC has a lot more activity in the pipeline and we want to get even more SMEs involved. We’ll meet with SMEs, and specialist agencies to identify projects for smaller companies.”

Win, win situation

With the support of the TSB Catapults, UK manufacturing is increasing its momentum in innovation activity, thereby helping to underpin competitiveness, customisation and the potential to access new markets. The Catapults themselves offer a unique low-cost, low-risk, high-expertise option for manufacturers to accelerate growth. What’s not to like?