High Value Manufacturing Catapult: It’s the knowledge, stupid

Posted on 3 Apr 2013

The High Value Manufacturing Catapult was devised to help companies reach higher Technology Readiness Levels and have a better chance of getting products to market. Is it working?

Dick Elsy, CEO of HVM catapult
Dick Elsy, CEO of HVM Catapult

Deconstruct manufacturing in your mind and a factory is merely a building, a box where knowledge is applied. Knowledge is the key. Knowledge of how to make something cheaper, quicker, stronger. This is the essence of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, according to its chief executive Dick Elsy.

Archie MacPherson of the AFRC
Archie MacPherson, CEO of the AFRC

“The biggest anchor point for innovation in the UK is this knowledge,” says Mr Elsy, who spent 30-years developing technology businesses. “If we develop the knowledge here, it acts as the main binder to lock stuff into the UK.” Without this, it follows, manufacturing can be more attractive in regions with similarly qualified people but lower labour costs.

Take the next generation of composite aircraft wings, for example. “Imagine all the embedded effort in developing the manufacturing processes. It is not easy to flick that manufacturing abroad because the knowledge has created the value.”

“Catapult” is the name given to government’s vision for accelerating this conversion process of knowledge into value.

Keith, Research Director of the AMRC with Boeing, and Programme Director of the Nuclear AMRC
Prof Keith Ridgway, Research Director of the AMRC with Boeing, and Programme Director of the Nuclear AMRC

There are seven Catapults due to come online in the next year or two, covering fields like satellite applications, future cities and offshore renewable energy. The High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult became operational last year and has the responsibility of demonstrating the concept can work. It needs to help big companies prove manufacturing processes without tying up capital, and help smaller firms avoid the “Valley of Death” en route to proving that a new product is market-ready. Investors often fail to back a company at an important stage in its genesis because it is one or two Technology Readiness Levels short of being investable.

The HVM Catapult in turn comprises seven nationwide centres of competence for certain manufacturing disciplines. While some are multifunctional, others work in explicit fields, such as composite materials or metal forming.

Nigel Perry, the CPI
Nigel Perry, CEO, CPI

Technology access

Part of a Catapult’s remit is to provide technological capability that is inaccessible to many companies affordably. Does the HVM Catapult do this?

Visit the University of Sheffield AMRC with Boeing and it is clear that it does. Here giant machine tools, like the Starrag Heckert HEC 1800 with its unique planetary turning and milling technology that can machine enormous parts on a 10-metre bed, are being optimised for research projects that will fulfil the Catapult’s mandate in fields like power generation.

Alan McLelland and Keith Ridgway
Dr Alan McLelland, CEO of NAMTEC and Prof Keith Ridgway

Other HVM centres also use big technology. Early in 2014, the National Composites Centre (NCC) will install a Large Resin Transfer Press (RTM) to trial manufacturing processes for large scale composite materials.

Many aerospace and automotive companies, prime sectors for the application of composites, couldn’t afford to have this piece of kit in the corner of their workshops, which may not be working full-time. Locating it at the HVM centre pools the resources of companies with NCC people in collaborative projects. And the scope of projects

Peter Chivers
Peter Chivers, Chief Executive of National Composites Centre

the centre can undertake is growing. £28m from the Department for Business and Skills, announced in the 2012 Autumn Statement, will double its size.

Furthermore, as the HVM Catapult matures, more opportunity will arise for cross-centre working, multiplying the value of the Catapult’s kit and capabilities. Dr Will Barton, head of manufacturing at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), gives an example. “There is a lot of work being done to automate the production of automotive components and there’s much excitement about the use of composite materials for automotive components.

“So the NCC develops a method for making a part which has never been made in composites before. And MTC engineers, which specialise in automating processes, work out how to produce it faster and more efficiently.”

Alan Curtis
Alan Curtis, Chief Executive of the Warwick Manufacturing Group

Many such applications are not suitable for the average £5m precision engineering firm or biotech company. But small companies, such as LED manufacturer PolyPhotonix, have been helped by the Catapult. “It is not all about helping big industry,” Mr Elsy says. “For example, the Nuclear AMRC has Fit4Nuclear, a programme that opens SME’s eyes to certification so they can compete in the nuclear build industry.”

Choosing centre competencies

How did the government, which knows little about manufacturing, choose which competencies the HVM Catapult should assist?

The TSB commissioned the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University to identify the necessary competencies to protect and improve a competitive industrial base in the UK in 2011. Of the 22 competencies indentified the Catapults cover seven thoroughly and the others superficially.

The Catapult Sprung: case studies


AFRC – Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce worked with the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) to improve the manufacturing method for compressor aerofoils by extending the life of dies used in the hot forging process.


The AMRC worked with IBM engineers to develop a new remote MRO (Maintenance and Repair Operation). Considerable interest is being shown in the prototype by companies from the aerospace, energy and utilities sectors. The system has the potential to improve a company’s flexibility, improve its environmental footprint and up skill its workers.

MTC – Hewlett Packard

Working with MTC, HP developed new, more accessible and affordable product lifecycle management software. Working with smaller business members at MTC allowed HP to understand their requirements better. The new software should offer a ‘template’ for the rampup and scaling of factories.

UKTI Photo shoot - AMRC Sheffield

Nuclear AMRC – Newburgh Engineering

Newburgh worked for several years with an overseas customer to produce large components for the energy industry. These parts require a lot of machining on largebed machines at Newburgh’s Bradwell and Rotherham sites. It is working with the Nuclear AMRC to make sure its machining processes are optimised and to look at new technologies for making these parts. Newburgh production engineer Andrew Wright now works full-time at the Nuclear AMRC.

National Composites Centre

NCC – Jaguar Land Rover

The NCC is involved in early stage research with Jaguar Land Rover and other automotive companies to develop a process to mass manufacture car panels from composite materials.

Warwick Manufacturing Group

WMG – Boomerang Plastics

Recycling company Boomerang Plastics worked with WMG’s SME team to explore ways of re-using a well known yoghurt manufacturer’s plastic pots. Boomerang saw the potential of developing a material out of the waste that could be resold into new markets. WMG’s Dr Kylash Makenji helped test the thermal properties of the waste material, characterise it and injection mould it to assess the feasibility for re-developing and re-selling it.

Giving all the reasons for selecting the priority sectors and technologies given special treatment by the HVM Catapult is beyond the scope of this article. But there is some deliberate crossover between the Catapult’s strategy and other national frameworks for competitive UK manufacturing such as the Engineering Doctoral (EngDoc) centres run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the government’s industrial strategy.

“The government support for the risk reduction is the essence of the [Catapult funding] model” – Dick Elsy, CEO, HVM Catapult

This suggests competency selections follow a logic of alignment and a desire for a consistent approach to industrial development across the strategy documents of disparate bodies.

Investment off the back of Catapult work

High performance disk machining: Knowledge perfected with the Catapult means Rolls-Royce chooses UK for factory

At the InnovateUK show in March, Steven Halliday, AMRC relationship manager at Rolls-Royce, was evangelical about the benefits of working with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre to develop a specific set of manufacturing technologies.

Rolls-Royce drew on the AMRC’s expertise to develop an advanced manufacturing method for gas turbine disc components for Rolls-Royce’s latest family of large civil gas turbines. A joint Rolls-Royce/AMRC team used modern machining, tooling and modelling technologies to deliver a step change improvement to work content, productivity and quality, compared to industry standard methods.

“The manufacture of full scale demonstrator components at the AMRC validated the new approach in readiness for the launch of our new high technology disk factory near Newcastle that will open in late 2013,” says Mr Halliday. “I am confident that the methodology developed through this project can now be used and applied to similar complex process challenges across the other Catapult centres.”

Dick Elsy says: “The breakthroughs in machining time and accuracy have made UK manufacture for Rolls-Royce completely competitive. This captures the essence of the Catapult; the knowledge is the trigger point.”

How is the Catapult funded?

The Catapult is funded on a so-called three-thirds model. Core, government funding comes via the Technology Strategy Board and the remaining two thirds come from research and development grants won by the Catapult working with business and from contract research funded fully by business.

The CPI got £38m of government investment in the 2012 Autumn Statement for its National Biologics Industrial Innovation Centre

Is this system working? The core funding comprises £30m a year. The project’s year end accounts are due at the end of March, and Elsy and Barton say “the trajectory looks pretty good” to hit the three-thirds ratio.

Critics say however, that the Catapults should work on a higher proportion of business funding and aim to become self sustaining – as a similar initiative in the US aims to do within seven years.

Will Barton, who works with colleagues developing the US Catapult model disagrees. He is adamant that, even should the ratio for commercial funding increase, the Catapults should remain part state-funded.

“If you want to get an industry to de-risk a risky proposition, you have to continue investing to stay at the cutting edge. Industry is not going to do that on its own,” says Barton.

HVM Catapult competencies match those followed by EPSRC

Dick Elsy agrees. “Despite the capitalist in you, if you let industry drive everything you will progressively end up with vanilla flavoured projects. The government support for the risk reduction is the essence of the model.”

Funding within the HVM Catapult does not get evenly distributed. For instance, the Autumn Statement gave £38m for the National Biologics Industrial Innovation Centre (NBIIC), which is managed under the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and driven by the Life Sciences Strategy. But there was no money in November for the MTC, which is at full capacity and needs to expand.

“[The knowledge Transfer Networks and MAS] can convey the message of the Catapult better than me on a podium”Dick Elsy, CEO, HVM Catapult

“There are some areas that are underrepresented,” says Elsy. “We have to look for other projects of scale, define them and bid for incremental pots of money to supplement the core funding.”

All joined up?

The HVM Catapult claims to have come a long way in synchronising its activities with other groups, to help companies see the proposition for support and the best route to take.

TSB is working off the same 22 national competencies as the EPSRC is through its EngDoc centres and its 16 Centres of Innovative Manufacturing. “We get more and more lined up,” says Barton. “The next step is that Mark Claydon- Smith [Head of Manufacturing at the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council, see box] and my programmes start to line up in terms of the sectors we select with reference to the industrial strategy chosen by BIS.”

The TSB and EPSRC have a chief technology officers’ forum, where the CTO from each HVM centre meet with EPSRC technology representatives four times a year to synchronise activity.

PolyPhotonix and the CPI’s Printable Electronics Centre

PolyPhotonix manufactures products that use organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and has developed a photo-dynamic therapy light mask using facilities at the Centre for Process Innovation.

The technology, which can be used for domestic and professional medical applications, uses OLEDs to prevent and cure diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration – conditions that affect 10% of the population. The treatment will significantly reduce blindness in old age.

High throughput organic lighting is the key to affordability and light quality that stimulates the retinas without generating that heat that traditional LEDs give off. The technology was incubated at the CPI and successful clinical trials have been completed with the NHS. The therapy’s affordability is key to the product’s success.

Reaching SMEs

But is this increasingly rational Catapult proposition reaching the companies who need it most?

“I am spending one third of my time networking with the ‘extended enterprise’ , as I call it, for industry support. For example the Knowledge Transfer Networks [KTNs] and MAS [Manufacturing Advisory Service],” says Elsy.

“Here is a terrific resource, reaching out to SMEs, who can convey the message of the Catapult better than me on a podium. They are helping relevant businesses come forward.”

Evidence of this ‘extended enterprise’ outreach can be seen in Dr Ruth Mellors, who runs the Aerospace KTN, now acting like a Catapult ambassador with her community which includes bodies like aerospace trade group ADS. Furthermore, Caroline Boyer-Spooner, chief executive of the Chemistry and Innovation KTN, has sent several companies to the CPI in Sedgfield for potential help.

Same aims, stronger ties

Mark Claydon- Smith, Head of Manufacturing at the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council, explains how his research council is synchronised with the HVM Catapult.

Recently, EPSRC has made investments in areas of national strategic importance for future manufacturing, including:

  • 16 Centres for Innovative Manufacturing
  • Multidisciplinary programmes to research new industrial technologies
  • Doctoral training for future manufacturing scientists and engineers
  • Manufacturing research fellowships for industrialists moving into academic research leadership.

“Our research community is well connected to UK industry. A DTZ impact analysis in 2010 demonstrated significant economic impact from EPSRC research investment.

“In 2010, EPSRC commissioned IfM [the Institute for Manufacturing] to conduct a review of international approaches to manufacturing research. All the developed nations we looked at had strategies to improve national competitiveness through research and innovation, often via manufacturing. A critical factor was the relationships between universities, intermediate organisations and industry.

“The Catapult is well embedded within the UK innovation scene. EPSRC supports five Industrial Doctorate Centres associated with the Catapult (the NCC, AMRC, AFRC, WMG and the MTC), where Engineering Doctorate students work at the Catapult on an industrial project, supervised by academic experts at their host universities.”

Sceptics need persuading

Some commentators – including one within the Catapult – have remarked that the Catapult is really just a funky name the government cooked up to repackage seven existing manufacturing research centres which were, in some cases, running out of money with the demise of the Regional Development Agencies.

“The government pulled the plug on the RDAs then thought what shall we do with these places?” one senior executive linked to the HVM Catapult told TM.

No-one in industry really cares about the spin, providing the Catapult works. But the jury is out is on the accessibility and specific advantages of Catapult membership for small and medium-sized companies.

For example, what is the process for selecting which Catapult centre to join?

Some SMEs are eligible, defined by what they manufacture, to join multiple centres. But with an entry-level Tier 2 membership fee being £30,000 to £40,000, it is expensive to join more than one centre.

Furthermore, the total cost of membership can be significantly more than the membership fee alone. For a company hundreds of miles from its target centre, total cost includes the relocation of an employee, possible readjusted pay and rented accommodation. This could mount up to perhaps twice the membership fee.

On costs, a spokesman for the HVM Catapult said: “Five centres have a fairly flat membership fee model that is available in addition to the original simple payment for services option.  The membership models are similar, but not the same, across the five centres – so there are options.

He added: “A two tier membership is the most common arrangement across those Centres, but some have more tiers, depending on the sectors they work in and size of partner they engage with.”

Another snag is how reciprocal the collaboration that the Catapult is trying to imbue is. By joining a Catapult centre, a company can tap into a range of technical and research capabilities. But how much of the true value – the knowledge that Dick Elsy highlights – is available completely collaboratively?

Say a small engineering business has been optimising a machining technique, with specific speeds and feeds to machine parts from a strong alloy very quickly. By joining the Catapult, this painstakingly acquired knowledge is wholly available to prime companies such as GKN and Rolls-Royce. Would these primes reciprocate fully with a piece of their IP that the SME can benefit from, is it a two-way street?

Finally, the Catapult needs to consider whether SMEs, or big companies, could buy a technology that is Catapult derived direct from a member without being one themselves.

This might incur a long wait, and the Catapult would argue that a company waiting to buy proven technology would miss several key proving stages en route to the perfected process, missing out on potential benefits to his/her product development.

These question marks need addressing. But, overall, the evidence points to the Catapult as a well conceived organisation that is becoming firmly established in the UK’s industrial landscape. It is marketing itself to SMEs via channels like the KTNs and MAS, helping companies to produce commercially viable, market-ready products and providing big companies with strong, knowledge-based reasons to locate manufacturing facilities in the UK and not elsewhere. It is an asset, if not yet a perfect one.