The UK has a long and distinguished history of innovation and invention, however, continued R&D spend is vital to ensure our manufacturing efforts not only keep pace with the rest of the world, but lead it. Tim Hulbert reports.
From global gamechangers like the worldwide web and the jet engine down to daily staples like the toothbrush, the modern kettle and the chocolate bar; British development has impacted our lives in countless ways.
Not bad for a country that places 23rd globally on R&D spend. It’s a surprising ranking in comparison to the size of our economy but one that reflects our conservative funding – just 1.7% of GDP at present. It’s also notably below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average.
If we don’t move the needle then we’re taking a risk with the future sustainability of our industry. R&D is vital to ensuring our manufacturing efforts not only keep pace with the rest of the world, but lead it.
If we’re to excel in post-Brexit markets, continued innovation will be key.
Recent announcements would appear to suggest the government has recognised this.
In last year’s Autumn Budget, the Chancellor unveiled an objective to boost spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP. A welcome increase and one that’s predicted to generate an additional £80bn of investment over the next decade.
The Industrial Strategy White Paper that followed gave more detail on how this might be achieved, outlining a vision for the UK to be the most innovative nation in the world by 2030. An admirable goal, but how do we convert the words into reality?
Germany’s approach to R&D
Three years spent living and working in Germany gave me a valuable insight into how our European cousin approaches R&D and how similar practices could benefit the UK.
The German economy already invests 2.9% of GDP into R&D – significantly more than we’ll be investing, even 10 years from now. A strong development culture supported by a longer-term focus plays an important role in this.
Many examples exist where solid links have been forged between industrial sectors and across supply chains, enabling expertise and risk to be shared and a voice that helps legislators to make informed decisions.
Public opinion plays a mammoth role too. An engineering qualification and career really is well respected and something to aspire to, equivalent to medicine or law. This means that the best and brightest are frequently attracted to careers in engineering and manufacturing.
The resulting effect is that these sectors become more competitive, respected and influential. This in turn drives the desire to be more innovative and push development; substantial R&D investment is the natural consequence.
Back in the UK, efforts to encourage young people into STEM careers are mounting. The Industrial Strategy has a whole chapter largely devoted to this, but the onus – quite rightly – sits with us in the industry to be clear on what skills we need and play a leading role in attracting them into manufacturing careers.
We can certainly take some inspiration from the German model, strengthening links between industry sectors and campaigning for appropriate government support.
The platform to enable this is already there through the British Chambers of Commerce and in recent months, in my case particularly through membership of the Herefordshire and Worcestershire chamber, I’ve witnessed some great examples of how this can work very effectively.
The benefit of long-term partnerships
At Air Products, we’ve seen some really encouraging results by adopting this approach, forging long-term partnerships with customers that allow us to understand and do our best to address the specific needs facing their business.
With an in-depth knowledge of these challenges we’re then able to invest in developing solutions that can later be applied across the whole sector.
This way of working gives us the ability to respond to the needs of the market and contribute towards future development and innovation. We believe that it also helps us keep our offering competitive and relevant to the multinational markets we work in.
As a result of our UK partnerships, we have been able to support greater sustainability both in the UK and further afield.
Our work with cooling technology specialists Dearman and Sainsbury’s, is a great example, and has allowed us to make a major contribution to the world’s first ever refrigerated delivery truck to be cooled by an innovative liquid nitrogen powered engine – increasing efficiency and reducing emissions as a result.
Elsewhere, working together with leading UK food manufacturers, we have been able to develop and implement Freshline® SafeChill™. This new food processing technology is making substantial strides in eradicating campylobacter in poultry – the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK, bringing benefits to both the industry and consumers.
While the government’s efforts to boost R&D spending are commendable and will undoubtedly push forward innovation, working together with industry partners and customers will be key to generating tangible results.
Bringing ideas, skills and ingenuity together builds regional hubs of expertise and logically translates into more effective R&D investment, successful businesses and rewarding careers.
It will also make sure that UK manufacturing remains competitive in the global arena and retains its well-deserved reputation for invention and innovation.
Tim Hulbert is vice president of Air Products in the UK & Ireland – a manufacturer of industrial and specialty gases serving an international customer-base across technology, energy, medical and industrial markets.