The new Chief Technology Officer at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult is Professor Sam Turner, formerly the CTO at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, part of the HVMC. He told Nick Peters about the impact he hopes to make on UK manufacturing.
Sam Turner has been in post full-time since March 2017, just before the deadline closed for submissions on the government’s green paper on industrial strategy.
While the election will undoubtedly delay publication of the industrial strategy white paper, which was due later this summer, Turner is already giving strong signals about the strategy he believes is right for the UK economy.
He says manufacturing in the UK can benefit enormously from two key measures that he is advocating: persuading the UK’s booming tech sector to apply their world-beating ideas to improving the manufacturing sector, and capturing the experience of older engineers for posterity, while they are still in the workforce.
Sam Turner: If you look at traditional supply chains in the UK, and at some of the resilient mid-cap or SME companies that are doing well, their success is often down to expertise residing in the heads of key individuals.
It’s a demographic where some of that expertise is starting to move into retirement. The challenge is to try and capture that expertise and know-how in systems that are embedded at an organisational level – to learn and thereby evolve and improve the processes we build.
All the different building blocks of manufacturing technology will be accelerated, through digital technology. We can take direct human-to-human communications and add things like augmented reality [AR] and projection systems, such as the Microsoft HoloLens, to guide operators through a process.
You can have a remote expert visualising what a practitioner is doing and helping them by projecting holograms over the real practical physical device that they’re working with to help them solve a problem.
That only works while the expert is still available, but once that advice has been given, it’s digitised and it’s captured in data banks, ready to be re-used at any time. So, the next time an error or incident occurs, the system knows where to go to find that expertise.
We are also working on helping manufacturers adopt technologies such as analytics, modelling, digital twins, autonomous factories, supply chain connectivity, co-operative robotics [cobots] – all the advances that promise to raise UK manufacturing’s profitability and competitiveness.
If we then harness the vibrantly strong tech sector we’ve got in the UK, which is currently focused on fin-tech and gaming, we’ll see even more solutions emerging.
Will the HVMC be the primary delivery agent for all these initiatives?
Sam Turner: Currently, we’re doing it to show how the technology works. But how do you do that on a national scale? Will there be HVMC boots on the ground everywhere, helping to roll out proven technology? I’m not sure – I think we’ll be in partnership with others to do that.
The other thing I just want to pick up on…you talked about the great tech expertise we have in this country. Did I hear you just say that you are trying to attract experts away from the fin-tech and gaming sectors into manufacturing?
Sam Turner: Yes, that’s the great new opportunity. ‘Industry 4.0’ is a German term, and there’s a great, strong base in Germany of large systems suppliers. The UK cannot draw on the same base, but if you use what the UK does have – namely, our world-leading tech community – then that could give us a competitive advantage; it’s a real opportunity for the UK.
So, what would turn their gaze towards manufacturing, because it’s a huge sector for these guys to get involved with? A lot of the firms doing the analytics stuff are really interested in how they might capitalise some of their offerings. If you are in the tech sector producing software solutions, then new business models and opportunities that might meet the business needs of both can emerge.
There are already some front-runners, early adopters and visionaries with a foot in the manufacturing camp. They are starting to look at opportunities, but are probably not yet ready to roll out and publish.
Moving on, I’m going to replay a complaint that you’ll have heard over the years – one that’s not necessarily directed at you. It is that large-scale government programmes, which say they’re aimed at engaging with SMEs, quite often don’t. Benefits tend to get stuck at the top of the pile. Are you able to put your hand on your heart and say that SMEs will genuinely benefit from these programmes?
Sam Turner: Yes, they will. Will we have the right scale and breadth of access to get SMEs to benefit? We need to work on that. It needs a national approach to make sure we get the right access to SMEs.
The challenge is how do you go and speak to the widest possible SME community? You can get to representatives, but it’s not the same as going to speak to sector bodies like the Automotive Council or the Aerospace Growth Partnership, so we are working with banks, industry bodies, professional institutions and professional services to achieve optimum reach.
Some of the greatest projects we deliver with SMEs are where you can truly engage with them from the boardroom to the shop floor – and when they’re agile in the uptake. SMEs will undoubtedly be a major beneficiary of these programmes, and we’re looking at the right mechanisms to make sure we can do it at scale, so that we reach a much greater proportion of those who are ready to benefit from it.
Of course, they need to want to be helped and those who are delivering it on behalf of others need to know how and where to find them, to offer vehicles to make it consumable by SMEs.
Many of the Catapult centres we have were born with SMEs achieving great success working with large companies. New factories being built by SMEs and the creation of new market opportunities are the success stories that give us real satisfaction. We just need to make sure we can do that at the right scale.
We’re at something of a turning point in our history, developing an industrial strategy that is significantly more textured and multidimensional than we’re used to in the past. What challenge and opportunity does that pose for the HVMC?
Sam Turner: It creates a big opportunity for us. We can start to map out clearly where HVMC can deliver impact through technology into various sectors that make up the UK industry base. We see it as a really exciting time.
The challenge for us is in helping government format strategy in a meaningful way at a national level, to improve productivity, secure supply chains, and pick the right supply chains and sectors to work with.
In essence, tackling the questions of how do you realise a greater contribution to the UK GVA from the manufacturing sector, and how do you realise that through technology, which is our core offering?
Describe that in more detail for us.
Sam Turner: If you take the analogy of the spearhead, the sharp end is digitisation. It’s all about supporting the capture and embedding of more intelligence in the technology we already have around us in our factories.
I think behind that lies a heavy weight of capability around what might be seen as more conventional manufacturing technologies.
That means looking at the metal sector and at several forming processes, and machine and finishing processes, looking at novel ways of joining dissimilar materials, looking at high integrity forgings and castings, hybrid processing… maybe adding features, as well as removing them and forming them… really getting the price down on affordable composites.
So, it’s a raft of processes and materials knowledge that already exists, but that is accelerated through the exploitation of digital technology.