Innovation: the UK’s need for a Materials Catapult

A commitment to innovation has to be at the heart of any co-investment deal between government and industry. Chris McDonald – chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute, argues the need for a dedicated Materials Catapult.

While the future of Tata’s Port Talbot Steelworks still hangs in the balance and European Political leaders debate the overcapacity of steel on the international market, the UK sector is making moves that can provide it with a new and sustainable future.

Chris McDonald, chief executive, Materials Processing Institute.
Chris McDonald, chief executive, Materials Processing Institute.

Investment fund Greybull’s decision to invest in the Long Products Division, which will also see the return of the British Steel name, is a positive reflection of the interest that remains in the UK steel industry.

However, without a commitment to innovation the sector is destined to remain in its current depressed cycle no matter what the levels of global stock piles.

The steel industry is on the cusp of a paradigm shift in technology, moving from the large integrated, high economies of scale assets that exist, to new mini-mill type operations.

These new operations are based around Electric Arc Furnaces, they are high technology, high flexibility, low capital cost facilities, utilising 100% recycled raw materials and giving a step change improvement in carbon emissions.

The gradual decline of many existing steel assets is opening the door to the introduction of these new technologies and – by having an environment in the UK that is open and welcoming to new investment in these steel producing technologies – it would be possible to capture the European market in steel production.

The UK is ideally-placed to be the leading nation in switching to this new technology. Having a large and growing market for steel, a ready and available supply of raw material and – through universities and the Materials Processing Institute (MPI) in Middlesbrough – the expertise and innovation capability to make this shift.

Britain is currently the fourth largest exporter of steel scrap in the world and the greatest exporter on a per capita basis. This is a valuable raw material, which, if retained and processed in the UK, becomes a high value export product, significantly improving the UK’s balance of payments and providing a draw for inward investment in advanced manufacturing.

It’s important to recognise that the UK is well-placed to be the leading European nation in this switch to new steel production technologies, but if investments are made first elsewhere, it would close the door to realising this technology shift in the UK.

Inward investors are currently looking for opportunities to set up such facilities in Europe and if this were to happen in one of the other European nations, we would see an increase of steel imports into the UK and a gradual shift of high value manufacturing from the UK to territories that can provide the advanced steels needed.

Materials Catapult

To support this essential shift in the UK industry, the MPI – along with its partners, TWI and the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, have made a proposal to establish a new Materials Catapult for the UK – currently under consideration by government.

The materials industries are currently not supported under the Government’s catapult network, but they have specific innovation needs and are the essential underpinning of UK manufacturing.

The proposal partners have demonstrated strong cross-sector industry support for the Catapult, including from leading industry bodies the likes of EEF, CBI and FSB.

What would a Materials Catapult do?

  • Focus on improving productivity in the UK materials industries to keep them at world-leading levels of competitiveness.
  • Provide the translational support for the commercialisation of research from UK universities, to ensure that the benefits are realised within the UK economy.
  • The Government has announced investment of more than £300m in materials research at the new Royce Centre at the University of Manchester, but without the Materials Catapult, the UK will not have the capability to bring this research to commercial reality and the benefits will be exploited elsewhere.
  • It’s recognised that there are a larger than average number of SMEs in the materials industries and the Materials Catapult partners have developed specific measures to help these firms grow and become the internationally competitive large businesses of the future.