Future-proofing manufacturing: why we need left-field thinkers

Posted on 22 Feb 2022 by The Manufacturer

Manufacturing must recruit radical thinkers - as well as skilled engineers and scientists - if we are to achieve our future potential and solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Manufacturing holds the future of the world in its hands.  As we enter 2022 on the back of COP26, we have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to play a critical role in protecting the future of the planet.

It is no surprise that the singular focus of the UK Manufacturing Summit earlier this month, was achieving net zero by 2050.

Manufacturing can contribute to so many other national and global issues, too – from making our homes more energy efficient to ensuring supplies of clean water to communities in need.

The possibilities of our work are endless, and the radical discipline of additive manufacturing (AM), where I have found my home, adds a mind-blowing new dimension.  In the AM world, literally anything is possible – but first we must be able to dream it, then engineer it, then understand its impact.

Diversity delivers innovation

In my two-year journey building a UK-based AM business, and 10 years as a chemist/ material scientist working in a university engineering department, I’ve been struck time and again by just how critical it is to embrace different types of people and thinking if we are to continue pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Simply continuing to hire more ‘people like us’ – more engineers – is not going to deliver the radical innovation the world needs.

Instead, we need to embrace a truly diverse workforce – not just embracing different ages, races and genders – but embracing diversity of discipline and thinking, too.

Our very survival depends on it.

Asking the big questions

Perhaps we need philosophy graduates to help us ask – and answer – society’s biggest questions, and to ensure the safe and ethical development of game-changing technologies like AI and AM.

These technologies are moving so quickly that we don’t seem to have time for the reflective thinking and intellectual challenge we need to run alongside the technical advances – providing important checks and balances. To ensure innovation travels at speed in the right direction.

The disciplines of sociology and psychology have a role to play, too – bringing a vital understanding of how people and societies behave.

We don’t manufacture in a vacuum, and now more than ever it’s critical we understand the real-world implications of our work and ensure that game-changing technologies are used for good, not ill.

Revolutionary technology needs revolutionary minds

Of course, I’m not talking about ditching engineers – these roles are at the core of any manufacturing team and their skills are invaluable (and in short supply).

But alongside engineering logic we need to start introducing new and different minds.  After all, manufacturing is deploying some revolutionary, fast-evolving technology that is shaking up established ways of designing and making products.  To deliver a revolution you need diversity of thinking and a bold approach.

Are we there yet in my own company? Absolutely not.  At just over two years old and with a core team of eight, we are only at the start of our journey.  But we know where we want to be and our experience at the crossroads of science and engineering has shown us the benefits of combining different disciplines to deliver innovation.

Different routes into manufacturing

My own route into manufacturing has influenced our approach.

After struggling with traditional academia, it was only when I came to study for my PhD that my passion for chemistry and materials was really ignited.  The opportunity to then work as a material scientist based within an engineering department (at the University of Liverpool) allowed me to make new and rich connections between these two often separate disciplines.

The result was a pioneering research project into brand new additive manufacturing processes, using more cost-effective binder jet printers.  In 2019, we spun the company out from the university and we are now translating that research into real-life manufacturing processes that will support sustainable, low-cost production at scale.

When I first started out as a PhD student and lecturer, I never imagined I would find myself where I am today – transitioning from academia to industry and from theory to reality.

It’s an incredibly exciting space to work in and as we move forward, I’m looking for people with different stories to tell, from different career paths, to join our team.  Why? Because I believe it is these people that will help deliver innovation.  It’s not going to happen unless we continue to shake things up.

Start with the people, not the technology

Indeed, I believe that the very future of manufacturing lies in getting our people right.  The science and technology we need to solve the world’s problems already exists but we need the right people to talk to the right people to deliver the innovation and make things happen.

We don’t just need to focus on the science, we also need to focus on our people and on creating the right culture – and this is where we all need some help.

I confess I certainly don’t have the answers.  I know we need to think out of the box as we recruit to our own team, but I can’t pinpoint exactly who those innovative thinkers are or where I will find them.

How do I write a job description that will tempt a humanities’ graduate to consider a job in STEM? What words do I use to attract the most curious of minds?  How do schools and universities change the way they teach STEM to make it more exciting and more attractive – and to add in the reflective thinking that is all too often missing from today’s technically-focused approaches?

How do we show Gen Z (now 10-25-year-olds) that a STEM career can give them the purpose they are seeking from work? (in a recent survey for BAE Systems, 30% of young people said they wanted a career that would make a difference to the world).

These are just some of the big questions that need answering – and it needs all of us to answer them.

A movement for change

That’s why I’m calling on others across manufacturing, engineering, science and education to join me in a movement for change.  I want to do nothing less than transform the heart of UK manufacturing – the workforce – and to reinvent ourselves to be fit for the immense challenges that lie ahead.

About the author

Kate Black HeadshotDr Kate Black is the Co-founder of Meta Additive – part of the Desktop Metal family – and a part-time senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool.  She is one of The Manufacturer’s Top 100 influencers of 2021.