The role the High Value Manufacturing Catapult plays in driving the new industrial revolution has been critical, with its impact felt in all corners of the UK and across numerous industry sectors. Rory Butler talks to the organisation's CEO, Dick Elsy.
As well as cultivating the UK’s booming technology sector, renowned for its world-leading ideas resting on generations of experienced engineers, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC) is reinstating manufacturing in the national psyche.
Its role in influencing government in matters of infrastructure, technology, education and skills is also essential, and as a relatively new Cabinet adjusts to more changes in its finance and business departments, the HVMC will be looking to ways it can support the government’s pledge to ‘level-up’ the UK economy.
A key player in that strategy is CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Dick Elsy. Elsy has been involved in engineering for close to 40 years and he has a keen eye for the direction of travel for industry, based on his decades of experience in the sector.
Elsy joined the HVMC from Torotrak plc, the global innovator in gearless traction drive technology where he was acting CEO. Before that, he was product development director at Jaguar Cars Limited, where he led the introduction of several new car initiatives.
He served at BMW in Munich, heading up major car programmes and spent a long career with Land Rover as a member of its executive board. While there, Elsy led the creation, development and manufacture of the Land Rover Freelander.
In addition, Elsy sits on the board of the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) and holds membership of the Automotive Council’s Technology group. He also chairs both the Automotive Council and AGP’s Manufacturing Working Groups.
In this exclusive interview, Elsy sat down with The Manufacturer to discuss his career to date; the successes and blind spots of UK manufacturing and the HVMC; the struggle for better commercialisation of ideas; and a possible future helping government when he steps down before the end of 2020.
This article first appeared in the March/April issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe
You’re announced that you’ll be standing down as CEO of the catapult. What were the challenges when you came on board?
[UPDATE: Dick Elsy has decided to defer his retirement in order to help with the response to Covid-19, and will not be standing down in August 2020 as previously announced]
At a macro level, one of the reasons for me coming to the Catapult was to get UK manufacturing back in the national psyche. When I started my career in the late 1970s, very early 80s, manufacturing felt like an unloved profession, and as a young engineer that sat uncomfortably with me.
So, the chance to make a difference with the HVMC, particularly in the areas where the UK is strong, advanced manufacturing technologies for instance, was fantastic. It’s been a superb instrument. Industry has loved it, and it’s been hugely successful. It really does feel like manufacturing’s important again in the UK.
Even this relatively new government appears to have technology at its core thinking, as well as the route to zero carbon and levelling up the economy.
In 2019, the HVMC succeeded in turning the £109m core grant it received from government into a total R&D investment of more than £504m. Image: HVMC
What have been some of the Catapult’s big successes?
The HVMC really ought to be called the ‘Industrial Catapult’ because we’ve done everything that was expected of us, and a bit more. We’ve got significant scale, and reach, and influence – and those are the things of which I’m most proud.
Great, tangible examples include helping the aerospace industry cut metal harder and faster. The guys at Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre have come up with breakthrough technologies to cut titanium really efficiently, halving the process time, casting and product cost for really complicated parts like fast turbine discs, the component that holds the turbine blades together in a ring.
That technology enabled Rolls-Royce to keep all that added value in the UK, build a new factory up in Washington (UK) in the North East, employing lots of highly experienced, qualified technicians, running this highly automated factory that produces millions of pounds worth of goods.
At the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), we helped Rolls-Royce fully automate their advanced blade-casting process, for high-pressure turbine blades. Those are the ones that are single crystal. We developed the entire process with MTC and they’ve got their plant running in Sheffield now.
Also, in Sheffield, Boeing situated their only factory in Europe there, all coming from the technology being developed in the Catapult, in terms of machining capability. There was a bit of a quid pro quo – we helped them retain jobs in America, to be more competitive and keep business in the States. In return we got a plant making control mechanism components for wings for Boeing in Sheffield.
The components they produce are at lower cost than they can make them in Mexico, and it’s all off the back of the technology.
Not just for metal-bashing mega-industries – The Small Robot Company’s prototype automated farming robot promises to revolutionise agriculture in collaboration with the MTC. Image: HVMC
How are the seven regional catapults under your remit faring – and what work still needs to be done?
They’re all doing pretty well. They’re at different scales, because they’ve got slightly different remits.
MTC in Coventry has a very broad spectrum: it’s known for construction, and is building the National Construction Innovation hub. Control, automation, additive manufacture, modelling simulation – it’s a big enterprise.
Contrast that with the Nuclear AMRC, which is a much smaller centre because it’s got a very focused remit. But it’s hugely influential in steering the national nuclear agenda. That ties into how we ensure government is suitably informed to make the right decisions about big civil reactor builds, small modular reactors, even fusion technology.
The task to demonstrate that fusion can work at scale has huge technical challenges. UK technology, called the Spherical Tokamak, coming out of UK Atomic Energy Authority is an easier reaction to sustain, with less complicated magnetic fields and it looks like it’s a real possibility.
We’re putting a manufacturing technology centre in Rotherham with MTC to make the Spherical Tokamak work. It’s a really important instrument to have in the UK.
The Tokamak ST40 fusion reactor, which has been switched on and taken the UK one step further towards generating electricity from the power of the stars. Image: Tokamak Energy
How has the HVMC advanced the commercialisation of UK innovation?
That was really our main remit. We spend a lot of money in migrated science, but we don’t seem to convert enough of that into value add. Some of our biggest successes in bringing new products to market have been at SME level.
Our research suggests 60% of SMEs have brought new products to market as a direct result of working with the HVMC and that’s very well distributed around the UK.
We’ve had success in food and beverage, and pharma, as well as the biotech space where we’ve developed a process to turn waste gas from a refuse tip into a simple protein, a pure feedstock for fish farming.
We’ve also had successes in metal cutting, forming, fabrication and in aerospace and automotive. Around 50% of our total work in value terms is in aerospace and automotive.
We’re also helping construction and infrastructure industry adopt manufacturing process disciplines in their projects.
The AFRC’s new digital visualisation suite in Scotland for businesses to develop fully-immersive virtual and augmented reality technologies into their operations. Image: AFRC
How are you helping firms prepare for the adoption of digital technologies – and what are the barriers?
The way Industry 4.0 or digital manufacturing is pitched can seem very complicated, particularly for SMEs. Lack of understanding is by far the biggest barrier and a fear that digital solutions are going to be extremely expensive with uncertain outcomes. For bigger companies, lack of consistent standards and interoperability are a major barrier.
HVMC showcases how technologies connect, work and what the benefits are. Big showcase sites are at MTC, Factory 2050 in Sheffield/Rotherham. We’re building one in the National Manufacturing Institute in Strathclyde, Scotland. The NCC has just secured a big digital showcase contract as well, and a 5G lead programme.
We’ve been helping SMEs with a really low-cost entry to the world of digital manufacturing. We nicknamed it ‘Industry 4 for less than a grand.’ As a result, SMEs can sweat their assets with a few sensors fitted to an old machine tool, easily harvesting data using iPad-type technology, and understand a great deal about manufacturing processes in real time, in turn improving productivity. We get them on a journey, all that productivity improvement and visibility for less than £1,000!
We’re also bidding for more funding for the digital showcasing from the Made Smarter initiative.
What do you believe the recent Cabinet reshuffle – with a new Business Secretary, Chancellor and Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, among others – will mean for UK manufacturing?
All the soundings I’ve taken in relation to the new Secretary of State at BEIS Alok Sharma are very encouraging. He has a science degree, he studied physics and electronics – it’s always a good sign to see somebody coming in with a technical and science background.
He’s also had experience at one of the big advisory firms, which is not a bad training ground. I hear he’s very keen on added value through advanced manufacturing, so I think we’ve got a positive blank canvas.
Government is looking to level-up the economy and invest in technology as a means of doing that. The route to zero carbon by 2050 also means serious government lead. More offshore renewables. Tackling the back-log we’ve created in nuclear, developing the big sites, small modular reactors and the fusion programme too.
We want to play a major role in that as a systems integrator, to help bring some of this to market. Many government departments and agencies are all about managing the funding model – but there’s not many with our scale, reach, capability and track record.
What I’d like to see is a lot of stimulus funding where we can play a central role. Let’s take no cars sold with a petrol or diesel engine from 2032 as part of the zero-carbon piece. If we’re serious about that we need serious programme activity of enormous proportions. Not only has HVMC the capability for the practical translation work of turning science into physical manufacturing processes, we can also help build supply chains.
Batteries have a vital role in removing internal combustion engines from our roads and becoming truly carbon zero by 2050. The HVMC’s new manufacturing processes and techniques could play a huge role in this. For example, the WMG’s (Warwick Manufacturing Group) expertise has delivered battery lifetime ten times longer than standard for Integrated Zero Operation Emissions public transport. Image: HVMC
Consider the battery, for instance. It’s a big job to stimulate new supply chains for that and to ensure we keep the value in the UK. Wrapped around that is ensuring we’ve got the accompanying skillset. We’re sitting on the know-how of new manufacturing processes and techniques. We feel we’ve got a responsibility to bundle that knowledge up into curriculum material to start re-skilling the UK’s workforce.
If we’ve got a government behind us that wants to do it, being truly carbon zero by 2050 presents a tremendous opportunity for UK engineering and manufacturing – and we are determined to help industry grasp and execute it.
How are you helping the UK build the workforce of the future?
We are putting a lot of focus into the workforce skills piece at the moment. We’ve been working with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation that published a report showing what the UK needs to do.
It’s a combination of both clear foresight and using our knowledge of what technologies we can see are coming and that need to be developed and worked on. Because we’re involved in these new processes and because of our ability to generate the training material, we’re very well equipped for that.
We’re sitting on a well-crafted process which has a lot of interest for the Department of Education. For the first time we seem to be getting the right people aligned in the workplace skills space, particularly with these new technologies that we’ve got to focus on.
As regards to stimulus, we have some really exciting technology and technical challenges, which I think resonate with young people. What we do now and over the next 10 or 20 years is going to shape the future of the world. That includes what’s happening at a macro level with climate change. There’s an opportunity for young people – through taking an interest in science they can play a key role in sorting it out.
I think engineering is going to be the saviour of our ability to keep a very evolved quality of life – our ability to continue to consume at a reasonable level and to do so in a responsible way so we don’t emit any CO2. That’s a mega-engineering project.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of from your time as CEO?
I think the thing I’m most proud of is our scale. The fact is, from that modest start eight years ago, we now have the largest manufacturing research organisation in Europe.
We’ve got a fantastic instrument in the UK in support of advanced manufacturing and it’s already delivered some amazing regional impact. The whole economic stimulus that comes off the back of Sheffield with Boeing and McLaren – the updraft coming from the technological work we’ve done with those two centres has people really clamouring to be associated with it, to put their factory up next to McLaren.
What lies ahead for you when you do step down?
I’m closing one door on my 40-year executive career, I’ve done a long stint. But I’m opening a new door in a non-executive and advisory capacity. I’m going to be supporting companies with advice on innovation. I’m going to have a portfolio of smaller companies I will help directly, and some bigger ones too.
If government is interested, I think I’ve got a role to play in some of the steering that needs to be done over the coming years. They’re going to need people to manage and guide huge intervention projects. That’s something that interests me. I want to stay close to the innovation space. I think I’ve got a lot to offer.