Collaboration and cooperation will drive growth for the UK’s advanced machinery manufacturing SMEs

Posted on 5 Jan 2024 by The Manufacturer

As Dr Tony Bannan OBE, Honorary President of the Advanced Machinery & Productivity Institute (AMPI) explains, machinery manufacturing in the UK is powered mainly by smaller companies leveraging innovation and emerging technologies from within their own supply chains.

As such, there is a considerable opportunity to provide SMEs with additional routes of innovation and access to emerging technologies to grow the machinery sector of the UK.

Establishing capability in manufacturing technologies and processes, such as additive manufacturing and precision engineering, enhances national security, productivity, economic resilience and strategic independence. These are all vital to the UK’s own manufacturing resilience and will also serve as a revenue source through exports of products and technologies.

Niche focus and limited collaboration

Large, strategically important businesses have enabled and shaped the UK-wide network of manufacturing sector-focused ‘catapults’ – that is, physical centres with cutting-edge R&D infrastructure including laboratories, test beds, factories and offices, as well as technical experts that prove and adopt breakthrough products, processes, services and technologies.

Our larger manufacturers in sectors like power generation, automotive and aerospace are global players. They are shaping the international machinery sectors. However, this can lead to another form of IP leakage, in which UK innovation is exploited by overseas equipment developers.

The majority of UK-based machinery manufacturers are SMEs of between 15 and 50 staff that operate in highly specialised niche sectors. It’s a community that is vibrant, flexible and able to develop potentially transformative technologies for machinery manufacturing. However, their specialised focus can also limit collaboration due to competitive concerns, intellectual property risks and skills shortages.

With this in mind, the challenge for the UK machinery sector is how to level the playing field and create an environment in which collaboration between specialists can thrive through improved connections, coordination and communication of customer needs.

The majority of UK-based machinery manufacturers are SMEs of between 15 and 50 staff that operate in highly specialised niche sectors

The challenge of developing collaborative working policies

Historically, SMEs across the whole of the manufacturing industry – and within the machinery space in particular – struggle to ‘look up’ from their work and collaborate effectively. This hinders the pooling of resources, sharing of expertise and joint innovation efforts needed for growth.

Initiatives in Spain, Italy, Holland and Germany demonstrate that collaboration centres with a particular focus in technical specialisms, are able to succeed when SMEs recognise the collective benefits and establish shared resources.

SMEs often cannot afford to employ five or ten professional engineers, or specialists such as finite element analysts, applications technology specialists or PhDs to work on a particular project. However, these initiatives provide access to a shared resource pool of highly skilled industry experts via a network of centres or institutes, which industry participants and member companies can draw upon.

Here at AMPI, we’ve studied and benchmarked examples of these centres. They include Brainport Industries Campus in Eindhoven in the Netherlands; Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming at Chemnitz in Germany; Technology IWU, Tekniker, Tecnalia and IDEKO in San Sebastian, Spain; the Institute of Intelligent Industrial Technologies and Systems in Milan, Italy; the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, Disputanta in Virginia, US; and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech).

What’s striking is that the countries in which these centres are located all have robust manufacturing sectors and a track record in advanced machinery innovation.

In the UK, government awareness of the enablers of manufacturing needs to improve dramatically. Years of benign neglect (rather than deliberate policy) means that every segment of UK manufacturing has suffered from a lack of understanding and awareness of its value at a national level. With the single possible exception of defence and aerospace, successive governments and UK policymakers have largely overlooked the importance of a strong advanced machinery manufacturing base.

This has resulted in a dearth of investment in machinery development, a loss of valuable necessary skills and a corresponding slow decline across most of the industry.

All advanced manufacturing – whether that be pharmaceuticals, chemicals, foods, white goods, planes, trains and automobiles – depends upon machinery technologies and automation. Without these core technologies, the UK risks being left ‘out in the cold’ as the manufacturing sector worldwide evolves and moves forwards. This might sound overly dramatic, but it is not unimaginable.

To halt this decline, industry and government need to work closely to support manufacturing in the UK. It is crucial for us to create an environment that teases out the machinery manufacturing requirements of the UK to create a solid foundation of capabilities which can feed the UK manufacturing capabilities AND be exported to overseas manufacturers.

Historically, SMEs across the whole of the manufacturing industry struggle to ‘look up’ from their work and collaborate effectively

The academia-industry gap

A disconnect between academia and industry further exacerbates the challenges. Universities are often evaluated based on research publication metrics, leading to much less emphasis on industrial collaboration and real-world impact.

Establishing a more symbiotic relationship between academia and industry will yield significant benefits and result in collaborations that drive innovation and address manufacturing challenges head-on.

Embracing collaborative networks

The key to overcoming collaboration barriers lies in fostering networks that allow SMEs to pool resources, share costs and address challenges together. Promoting cross-industry partnerships and knowledge-sharing initiatives can lead to breakthroughs that benefit the entire manufacturing ecosystem.

Creating a centralised hub or initiative focused on a specific technology for machinery manufacturing will generate activity and attract industry players to work together. Such initiatives set standards, drive innovation and encourage the pooling of resources for research and development. This in turn accelerates growth in the sector.

Long-term vision

Recognising the potential of the UK advanced machinery manufacturing sector requires a considerable shift in mindset towards long-term planning and investment. Rather than solely focusing on short-term gains, policymakers and industry leaders need to prioritise strategies that promote sustainable growth and nurture emerging technologies.

The journey to an empowered, resilient and thriving machinery manufacturing sector requires industry leaders, policymakers, and academia to join forces, transcend conventional boundaries and lay the foundation for a resilient, prosperous future.

Industry itself has come together to develop one such initiative – the Advanced Machinery and Productivity Institute (AMPI). Our vision for AMPI is to provide a single, national focus for all these issues. We want to encourage a knowledge and skills pipeline with all stakeholders, particularly industrialists, engaged.

We must ensure future generations of components and materials are manufacturable to shape future machinery and manufacturing technologies. This will reduce our reliance on international procurement, encourage support for home-grown projects and drive up inward investment and national productivity.

In shaping this future, AMPI can help the UK become a trailblazer in machinery manufacturing innovation and lead the way toward a more interconnected, collaborative and successful ecosystem, driving economic growth and improving national security.

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