Innovating to stay resilient against uncertainty

Katherine Bennett CBE, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, provides some top tips on how to ‘future-proof’ your business against an uncertain future.

A quarter of UK businesses temporarily closed down at the start of the pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics. The economy shrank by 9.8% last year, the most dramatic fall since consistent record keeping started in 1948.

Katherine Bennett, CBE, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult
Katherine Bennett, CBE, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult

In October, the Institute of Directors warned that business confidence has “fallen off a cliff”. Combined with rising costs of wages, energy and materials, as well as tax rises, supply chain disruptions and images of queues twisting around petrol station forecourts, it’s little wonder that business owners are worried.

Never before has the concept of ‘future-proofing’ – building resilience – been so important for businesses. Only then can companies survive and even thrive when economically damaging events strike. There are at least five key areas that manufacturing leaders need to address to make sure that they are prepared for the next big crisis: innovation, the workforce, sustainability, supply chains and harnessing new technologies. Below are some best-in-class examples from the manufacturing industry of how this can be achieved.


Magway aims to reduce air pollution by providing delivery services through subterranean pipes
Magway aims to reduce air pollution by providing delivery services through subterranean pipes

Innovation

This is crucial. Only by fostering creativity can we manufacture the products that can help us overcome traumatic events. An obvious example last year was how the industry collaborated to produce 14,000 ventilators, taking the strain off the NHS at the time of its greatest need.

A more obscure, but nevertheless instructive, case study comes from our Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in Yorkshire. The team worked with Fibreright, which has a mission to recycle the seemingly unrecyclable. Fibreright’s technology has the potential to transform the UK’s bioeconomy, releasing sugar from municipal solid waste.

Over 12 months, the CPI scaled-up and improved Fibreright’s processes, helping to demonstrate the commercial viability of its plans. There is now the potential for 60-70% of all the UK’s municipal solid waste to be converted into a useful raw material. The company has since attracted the investment it needs to become revenue generating and secure a solid footing for its future growth.

Developing the workforce

The pandemic was an important reminder that our greatest resource is people. The resilience of workers got businesses everywhere through the crisis. Now is the time to invest in the workforce, maximising their skills so they can overcome whatever is thrown at them in the future.

By 2030, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult intends to upskill or train 200,000 engineers and scientists a year, whether that be directly or indirectly. The workforce, of course, also includes senior executives – we often forget that they too need to constantly evolve and learn.

Architectural Louvre Products and Services (ALPS) found that it was not completing an acceptable number of projects on time and in full. Our Manufacturing Technology Centre, which is based near Coventry, embedded a best working practice approach in the management team.

They identified how to ‘batch’ suppliers of logistics, engineering and paint finishing, which created cost savings and an efficient materials handling process. This smoothed delivery and reduced stress on suppliers, while there has been increased customer satisfaction and an improvement to the bottom line. If there is a crisis, ALPS now knows it has the management skills needed to work out how it can still deliver its services on time.

Reducing emissions and improving sustainability

No business will flourish in the coming years without a commitment to net zero emissions. The political pressure is now too intense, and the risks to the planet too stark. For example, more than 100 world leaders signed-up to halt deforestation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow during November.

Our National Composites Centre (NCC) in Bristol worked with Magway, which aims to reduce air pollution by providing delivery services through subterranean pipes. This plan would support the online shopping boom, but traditional materials can harm the environment. Composite experts showed that using renewable, bio-based flax fibres could produce a more sustainable alternative, while also reducing materials and manufacturing costs by 50% and 70% respectively. That’s a remarkable achievement and shows how a commitment to sustainability can boost profitability.

Strengthening supply chains

Once a term confined to the business pages, supply chains now dominate the mainstream news. But not for positive reasons – rather that disruptions and demand spikes have resulted in empty supermarket shelves and delayed deliveries.

No small and growing business can afford such disruption, it’s the certain way of damaging sales and the probable route to collapse. The Advanced Forming Research Centre at the University of Strathclyde, a part of the National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland, our Scottish member, approached technology start-up SICCAR with an idea about how to use its cyber secure platform in the oil and gas sector.

That industry requires a high level of confidence that any new technology can be reliably delivered and maintained. To instil the trust needed to make headway in the market, the centre put together a formidable consortium of partners, including Lloyd’s Register as an inspections and certifications body and a leading oil and gas equipment manufacturer. Key funding has now been secured and SICCAR is accessing high-value markets.

Harnessing new technologies

The digital revolution is well and truly upon us. The economy could not have survived as well as it did through the pandemic without Zoom or Teams. They have quickly become features of our everyday lives yet were so rarely used only 24 months ago.


Driverless pods became a feature on the pathways of Milton Keynes through transport technology group Aurrigo
An Aurigo autonomous pod in the the 360 driving simulator at WMG, the University of Warwick – Image courtesy of Martin Neeves Photography

The pace of change will only accelerate, and the result will be much more efficient businesses. What is great is that these digital products and services can also be fun. Take driverless pods. These had become a feature on the pathways of Milton Keynes through transport technology group Aurrigo, but the group also knew that to grow they had to stay ahead of a crowded field and prove the pods were safe.

It is expensive and potentially dangerous to test the pods in the real world, so they used the 3XD simulator for intelligent vehicles at WMG, University of Warwick. The simulator has virtual representations of real roads, using laser scans of an environment.

The pod navigated its way through these virtual worlds, using its sensors to detect objects and control the vehicle. As a result, the pods reached the market two years earlier than would otherwise have been possible, keeping Aurrigo ahead of its competitors. In the wider world, such technology will help keep the economy moving in times of crisis.

Key takeaways

  • Harness creativity through innovation
  • Invest in your workforce
  • Commit to sustainability and boost profitability
  • Strengthen your supply chain
  • Harness new technologies to increase business efficiency

For more articles like this, visit the Leadership & Strategy section of The Manufacturer