Innovation in the West Midlands

Posted on 29 Nov 2013 by The Manufacturer

As part of MAS’ Manufacturing Matters week, James Pozzi spent a day touring the West Midlands to visit some of the innovators working with the group to drive business growth.

Manufacturing Matters week, the MAS initiative aimed at raising the profile of UK SMEs while promoting specialist support available to businesses, has served up an eclectic calendar of events across the country. Encompassing themes from promoting women in manufacturing to effective social media usage, the spotlight was firmly on the unsung heroes that are SMEs. On day three of the week – centred on innovation – I made my way up to the West Midlands to do a whistle stop tour of some of the players very much driving the innovation game in the region. While statistics tell you the region’s manufacturing has been one of the slower areas to recover, the reality in the form of the Innovation Road Show betrays this.

Bike Systems

Dave Vout, managing director of Bike Systems

My first stop took me to the outskirts of England’s second city to the annual Motorcycle Show Live at Birmingham’s NEC. The biggest show to date – with around 100,000 visitors expected over five days – saw industry big hitters Harley Davison, Triumph and Kawasaki in tow. But my point of interest was in meeting with a little-known Staffordshire company aiming to revolutionise the crash helmet for motorcycle users.

Bike Systems, founded last year by civil engineer Dave Vout who serves as its managing director, took to its stall as an exhibitor. Here it showcased its heads-up display (HUD) system, which shows motorcycle riders key information such as speed, engine revs and gear selection via their helmet.

Vout, based out of Stoke-On-Trent with his spin-off of an existing engineering drawings company, says he was surprised such a product – something he describes as a “no-brainer”, wasn’t already on the market. In bringing the product to market, Bike Systems has collaborated with a variety of regional companies, including Leicester-based product development consultant Blue Frog and Birmingham electronic company Bytesnap.

It also recently ventured down the crowdfunding route through startup investor Seedrs. This was to support the launch and ongoing development of the Bike Hud product. Certainly, being a young company attempting to serve a mature market with a brand new niche product is no easy task.

And with customers set to receive their first products in early December after placing pre-orders, Vout believes 2014 will prove a critical year for his company as it attempts to tackle design elements of the product. “We’re currently working on how to best make the product flexible to serve all helmet types,” he explains. “For example, with a flip front helmet, we need to further research with other manufacturers how to best crack that, much like with open face helmets, where we figured out a solution quite simply.” “It’s simply a question of getting the tooling for this finished, and then we’ll get a tool made for the injection moulding,” he adds.

Warwick Manufacturing Group

A twenty mile drive across the region took me to the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), based on the University of Warwick campus. Set up in 1980 by Professor Lord Bhattacharyya with the remit of reinvigorating manufacturing, the centre has long been a centre of innovation. But this has accelerated further in recent years due to increased investment. At the pinnacle of this is the recently opened £8.5m International Institute for Product and Service Innovation (IIPSI), the fifth building of the WMG.

Dr Ben Wood, WMG

Part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, IIPSI was opened to bridge the gap between academia and manufacturing by providing a platform for open collaboration. Its in-house Innovation Programme aims to encourage SMEs in understanding how new technology, processes and ideas can be implemented to develop new products and services to benefit their business.

Dr Ben Wood, who is the centre’s technology transfer specialist in polymer innovation, believes IIPSI adds new dimensions to the academia-manufacturer relationship while having a similar remit to similar groups in the UK. “Our role is to take some of the technology and innovations that come out of the university and feed them into SMEs in the region to encourage growth by developing new products and safeguarding jobs,” he says.

“Where we come in is when we’re trying to use technology to give a different manufacturing route or solution,” he adds. Dr Wood, with a background in Engineering, highlighted the work WMG has carried out with Birmingham’s Barkley Plastics, the third stop on the Innovation Road Trip, as an example of this.

“In this particular case, there was a small company which was going to work with Barkley Plastics to produce a final tool. And we helped by using our injection moulders to make the first 100 parts, which they could then go out to trial, prove the concept of the product to give them the confidence to invest in a local regional SME (Barkley Plastics) to make that tooling.”

Dr Wood explains IIPSI also has potential to create further production opportunities. “Helping one small company in the Midlands can often results in a manufacturing opportunity for the network of companies we work with in the region to keep products made in the UK and the production local.”

Also present was MAS innovation team leader Roy Pulley. Possessing over 25 years’ operational management across a plethora of manufacturing sectors, Pulley believes the issue of access to finance continues to be a hindrance for UK SMEs.

Yet where Britain has excelled, in his opinion, is in manufacturing’s embracing of academia as a means of product innovation, something which has been offset against the decline of specific industries. “Through our open innovation program and collaboration with SMEs working on a single project, they’re all working together for a common goal of getting a brand new, world beating product into the market, and I didn’t see that happening 10-15 years ago,” he says.

The IIPSI building on the University of Warwick campus

And the innovation doesn’t extend to just technology, with WMG also assisting SMEs on the lookout for new skills. “If you’re an SME, it’s very difficult to find someone with the right level of skills because they probably can’t afford a graduate scheme,” Dr Wood says. “Addressing that knowledge gap between what people leave university knowing and having the experience to do and what manufacturing companies and industry really need is something we are very focused on.”

Barkley Plastics

The final leg of the innovation road trip took place at Birmingham-SME Barkley Plastics. Based in the suburb of Highgate some two miles from the city centre, the MAS-affiliated plastic moulding and tooling specialist has worked closely with WMG for the past year on a host of new design processes for products. The collaboration has been fruitful; leading to increased turnover for the Birmingham manufacturer of over half a million pounds and the creation of three new jobs. This year alone has been Barkley Plastics’ tooling division’s most successful in over a decade, thanks in part to a large deal with Ireland’s Nypro.

Maurice Cassidy, owner, Barkley Plastics

Owner Maurice Cassidy explains how his business, which now employs 94, has engaged with WMG across a number of projects servicing a wide array of industries including medical and retail. “I think WMG realised they had to engage with manufacturers in the Midlands to use the services they had and vice versa,” he explains.

Cassidy also feels there has been a change in attitudes and perceptions between industry and academia, as previously, he’d viewed universities as having closed shop mentalities. He said his own company’s relationship with WMG began out of a necessity for new ideas. He explains: “It started off with WMG asking me to join the board of overseeing the building of the IIPSI, as a European Council demand. This is to ensure the funding – which it provides – is spent properly.” He continues: “Because we’re plastic moulders, we were obviously interested in the polymer side of what they offer.

A discussion of future visions and moving forward then occurred. The result was the company using optical microscopy in order to test and assess the validity of its patented in mould welding, using WMG’s Additive Layer Manufacturing facilities to create prototypes for a new finger-held razor and medical devices.

This also saw a new Step Stool project and the discovery of a new process of manufacturing interior trim components for Bentley Motors. While Barkleys’ reputation amassed over nearly 50 years kept it robust even during the downturn, it provides a perfect illustration of a company looking to invest and innovate in the upturn.

A production line at Barkley Plastics

Just one look at both present and past products assembled at the site provides a snapshot of Barkley’s flexibility, being able to both manufacture and offer solutions. “That’s the kind of reputation we have, because companies aren’t going to recommend somebody who doesn’t know what they are talking about,” says Cassidy. “We pride ourselves on offering highly technical skills and it’s fair to say we’ve had a lot of poison chalices presented to us, yet we’ve always been able to find solutions,” he adds.

Having worked on everything from children’s toy teapots to parts for paint balling guns, many products are catered for. And this continues to be possible as a result of a recent £2m investment in moulding and CNC machines, a measuring device and robotics, of which around £300,000 was spent.

With the government striving for a more balanced economy through industry, the West Midlands region provides an intriguing snapshot of innovating through the manufacturer-academia collaboration model.

Having been sounded out as the key drivers of the UK economy in the next decade, yet existing against the backdrop of difficult routes to finance, the raising of SME profiles is well timed. With the recent appointment of Steven Barr as its new head, MAS has much to do in 2014 as it looks to build on its already sizeable contribution to UK manufacturing at SME level.