August saw the second anniversary of Dick Elsy taking the reigns as chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. In this interview with James Pozzi, he reflects on the past two years and discusses the state of play with UK innovation.
This month sees you reach two years as chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. Which areas of progress would you highlight during your tenure so far?
There have been many highlights, particularly companies that we have helped that have gone on to deliver innovation in the UK. At the highest level though, there is the sense that manufacturing is back on the map. Over a 35 year career I’ve experienced the challenges that companies in the UK have faced in bringing new technology to market. We’ve now got an innovation eco-system in the UK, which includes the Catapults, which is supported by Government to help companies embed long-term manufacturing value in the UK. The HVMC has played a strong part in this and I see very positive signs of innovation activity driven off the back of this. Manufacturing has its moment in the sunshine and we are not going to squander it.
Have you noticed an increase in industry’s engagement with the HVM since 2012?
For sure – just look at the numbers. In 2012 we supported 290 industrial clients. In the last year we’ve supported five times that many (over 1500). In that time we’ve also seen a three-fold increase in the number of projects that we’ve done. The throughput and demand for our services is quite extraordinary. That’s helped greatly by the fact that we are hearing more about the real success stories coming out of companies of all sizes who work with us to turn their ideas into commercial reality. The media has given much attention to giants such as Rolls Royce, whose new Advanced Blade Casting Facility (ABCF) is expected to produce its first blades in late 2014, with the facility capable of manufacturing 200,000 blades per year when fully operational. Each blade will be cast to form a single crystal of super alloy.
The new automated casting process was developed by Rolls Royce with our Manufacturing Technology Centre, making the 14,000 square metre casting facility in Rotherham one of the most advanced in the world. At the other end of the scale we have small businesses such as Polyphotonix, whose revolutionary eye mask was developed in collaboration with our Centre for Process Innovation, and which is expected to save the NHS £1bn per annum in the treatment of certain types of blindness.
It’s very encouraging to see how manufacturing in the UK is developing at the moment. In April, a report by BCG (Boston Consulting Group) showed that the UK is recovering its leading position in global manufacturing. Thanks to improved productivity and stable wages, the UK is now one of the most cost-effective locations to produce goods in Western Europe. Add to that the innovation pull from the Catapult programme and you have a powerful draw which will impact positively on inward investment and re-shoring of manufacturing.
Do you feel the government has provided sufficient support for UK industry to grow and advance further in post-recession times?
We’ve made a great start with the Catapults and programmes such as the Aerospace Technology Institute and the Advanced Propulsion centre, which puts match funded money on the table to develop new technologies. I admire the faith and courage that there has been from government to set this up. We have started something great, but the rub is that having started it, we need to stick with it. We need the same courage to be shown by government to continue to match fund the innovation process. This time though they don’t need the faith, because the HVMC is delivering the intended results ahead of plan.
You stated in November last year that you felt the UK has lost a little bit of its risk taking mojo in technology. Why do you feel this is the case?
We are a very inventive nation for our size and throughout our history we have been hugely influential in shaping the modern world. We’ve been at our best when we were prepared to take risks. In Victorian times there was a readiness to take huge risks to deliver the technological innovation that was central to economic progress. Similarly in the theatre of war we took incredible technical risks to preserve our liberty and way of life. In the modern, more risk-managed UK, it is tougher to take risks and I do think that we had begun to lose our edge when compared to the likes of the “tiger” economies where risk taking is a prerequisite for rapid growth.
Other than a change in mentality, how can this be addressed?
Well, we are sitting on the answer. In its simplest form it’s about sharing in that risk and giving companies and individuals permission to stretch the boundaries to deliver more challenging innovation. In manufacturing, we are all used to the world of continuous improvement- taking small incremental steps and snatching the odd percent here and there.
With the advent of the Catapult programme, we’ve got government sharing in the development of riskier technologies and helping bring them to market – the kind of breakthroughs which change the rules and which can give the UK global advantage. I’ll give you an example: It’s a Sheffield based SME called Technicut – they make cutting tools. They teamed up with tool holding specialist Nikken and worked with our AMRC Centre to achieve record-breaking rates at which titanium alloys can be cut.
As a result, the patented system is now in production, and is being deployed at major titanium machine shops around the world. In effect is has become the new benchmark performance standard – all of this from a British company. Off the back if this breakthrough, Nikken, a Japanese company, has also invested in a new European research and development centre at the Advanced Manufacturing Park, next to the AMRC campus – a great example of inward investment off the back of British innovation.
What do you foresee for HVM as an organisation and UK innovation in general up until the end of 2014 and going into next year?
The HVMC’s “factories” are full of work and our order book for the year ahead sits at over £200m of innovation work, which is a mix of industry funding, collaborative R&D and core funding. The seven centres which make up the HVMC are running near to capacity and we are not keeping pace with industry demand. It’s not a bad place to be, it’s just that we are not fulfilling the full potential of the model.
I’m working hard with Ministers, our colleagues in the department for Business Innovation and Skills and Treasury to seek to secure support for continued match funding. We are already showing that we can help to embed significant long term manufacturing value-added in the UK. Innovation is the only robust antidote to the deficit and we can show that we can leverage government funding to deliver real and significant returns on that investment. With a robust funding model behind us we are set for real growth in the year ahead.