MP sings the praises of the sector – Lee Rowley talks all things manufacturing

Posted on 8 Jun 2022 by Joe Bush

The Manufacturer Editor Joe Bush speaks to Industry Minister Lee Rowley. UK manufacturing has been faced with a number of challenges over the past few years, some of which have been incredibly unexpected, and it is a testament to the ability, ingenuity and flexibility of the sector that it has been able to navigate the situation as well as it has.

Lee Rowley is serving as Member of Parliament for North East Derbyshire and was appointed Industry Minister in September last year. We caught up with him to gauge his view of the manufacturing sector over the last two years and his hopes for the future.

How has the sector responded to the challenges and what lessons have been learned?

LR: There have been some very large changes over the last 18-24 months and the ability of the sector to deal with those, even in the short time that I’ve been a minister, has been a sight to behold and I’m very grateful for everything that everyone has done.

When I’ve been out in the sector, talking to manufacturers from all over the country, they’ve been telling me that a key lesson learned during this uncertain period is how to think through what needs to be done at speed, and how to be as flexible as possible. That might sound obvious, but they’ve all delivered that brilliantly. And I know the manufacturers that I’ve seen are reflective of the wider sector as a whole.

There are some broader questions for us, as a society and as a country, and then more broadly, as a world. In the UK we want to be open and internationalist; it’s in the sector’s best interests, given the large proportion of exports which come from manufacturing, and just how integrated they are into global supply chains.

I think it is appropriate that we think about resilience in our supply chains. Some of what we’re seeing is a set of unique and extraordinary circumstances that we haven’t seen in over a century, excluding the current geopolitical challenges in Europe. However, this gives us the opportunity to think about what we want our manufacturing sector to look like in the years to come, and how that fits in a much broader global model; how do we continue to trade closely with others, and how do we ensure we have the greatest possible relationships all around the world.

And you can see that in the things government is doing. Our Critical Mineral Strategy, for example, is a good indicator of where we are thinking long-term about some of the challenges and opportunities which we know are coming.

Skills, sustainability, digital transformation and the supply chain are the four key issues on the minds of manufacturers. And across those four key challenges it’s ultimately the decision of individual companies about how they want to approach them, how they create their business models, and how they ensure they build competitive advantage over the long-term, not just in the UK, but across the world.

Coming from a manufacturing-based constituency as I do, I believe in the private sector, and the ingenuity of manufacturing and its resilience has been on show over many decades. UK businesses already do a fantastic job at working through problems, but as government, we have to highlight that fact to ensure they have the ability, flexibility, knowledge and the skills to be able to build for the future.

It’s true that some of the issues that currently exist will require intervention from government. On skills, for example, we are trying to make sure that we are thinking as far ahead as we can in terms of the kinds of skills that we’re going to need over the coming years and decades ahead. We’ve had cross governmental conversations about the skills that are required in manufacturing. And although it’s still at a relatively early stage, it’s important because we want to hear what the sector says (it’s not about someone in Whitehall deciding what people want), but also we need to work out how government can support that.

Lee Rowley
Minister Lee Rowley visited the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where he examined the graphene enabled concrete developed at the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre, University of Manchester, and Dr Andrew Pollard explained its net zero benefits. IMAGE: NATIONAL PHYSICAL LABORATORY (NPL)

The sustainability agenda is also hugely significant. We’ve created the frameworks around net zero over the past six months, and now we have to work with businesses to operationalise them on the issue, on top of all the fantastic things that they have already been doing. This will of course benefit them in the long-term as it will reduce the costs of their activity, the energy they are using and in terms of treading more lightly on the Earth.

How can we change the perception of the industry among some young people?

I come from a heavy manufacturing constituency; where I grew up, went to school, and where my family have been for a number of generations. However, 20 years ago when I was going through school, it wasn’t something that was actively spoken about in careers lessons, or was something that pupils were considering after leaving school.

I hope that over the course of the last two decades that has started to be corrected. When I went to school, in the late 1990s, there was a high point of focus on academia and academia alone. I think we are seeing a much broader discussion now, which is hugely important. Both to talk about the best pathways to leaving education and finding interesting work to do. But secondly, around a recognition that jobs are going to change over the course of people’s lifetimes. And people shouldn’t be afraid of that. There’s a brilliant set of opportunities that exist.

When I go into my local schools, and when I talk with training providers on the manufacturing side, I see that the situation is improving. But equally, we’ve got to find a way to connect some of the fantastic things that I have seen in the short time I’ve been doing this job; the opportunities that are in the sector, the ability of the sector to do great things, and the variety and diversity of problem solving which is needed.

Because ultimately, if you can go to work and have really interesting problems to solve, that’s the kind of thing which makes people want to get up in the morning. And if we can find a way to articulate that to youngsters on top of what I think is already an improvement in terms of the view of manufacturing, then that would be great.

It almost goes beyond manufacturing and is more about how you convince the people who want to problem solve and who have 50 years plus of their working careers ahead of them. Interesting people who have interesting ideas, who want to do interesting things; manufacturing has got that in spades. So, if we can convince people that those kinds of questions can be answered by manufacturing, then I think we have the potential to get a good thing going.

What does the future of manufacturing look like?

I’m hopeful that it will be really bright. Coming from an industry type background and now having the opportunity to be the minister, I know we’ve come through challenging times, and there have been points where our traditional manufacturing base has been challenged and reduced.

However, we’re starting to see a renaissance of both the importance of manufacturing, and the interest in the sector itself, building on all the work that’s been going on for a number of years. But there’s also a clear opportunity for manufacturers within the UK to grasp the opportunities around the future industries and sectors that we’re going to need, both domestically and then taking that more broadly across the world.

So, we’re positioning ourselves to take advantage of the technological advancements that are currently available to really push forward in terms of innovation. To go into that high skill, high impact, high technology arena, but also to recognise that we’ve got to work through how our sectors are structured. There are some brilliant opportunities coming in the decade ahead. And I know from conversations I’ve had, that manufacturers are really up for the challenge.

Can you explain your involvement with the Critical Minerals Strategy?

As government, we are very keen to make sure that as a country we are resilient and are well set for some of the challenges and opportunities that are heading our way in the coming decades. We know that as we move towards a greener future there are going to be different minerals and inputs that we’re going to need.

Lee Rowley
Graphene was an incredibly important discovery for the world, and it was done primarily within the UK. IMAGE: NATIONAL PHYSICAL LABORATORY (NPL)

There’s currently a big discussion, quite understandably due to the challenges within the geopolitical sphere, around some of our inputs in terms of energy and the like. It’s a really important discussion to have, but we want to ensure that sitting here in 20 years’ time, we aren’t having similar conversations about what we should have done to secure supplies of cobalt, lithium, or whatever the natural resource might be, that’s going to underpin the next move forward by the country and the world.

The point of the strategy is to debate, listen to experts and those who have an interest in this area, and to pull together a view from government about where we’re going. It’s also important to ensure that if we are to enter these new forms of manufacturing and industry, which we certainly must, that we secure sustainable sources of these critical materials to help maintain national security and meet net zero ambitions. But then also how we ensure that the entire value chain is covered as much as possible.

What is the aim of the Advanced Materials Scoping Group?

This is another really interesting area of policy, and the UK has been a world leader in this area for a number of years. Graphene was an incredibly important discovery for the world, and it was done primarily within the UK. So, we have a great track record to base ourselves from.

What we’re trying to do is take all the new composites and new kinds of materials which are going to be so important for the next leap forward as a country, and ensure that we’re at the forefront of that. Part of that is the huge innovation ecosystem we’re trying to create by pushing R&D up to 2.7% of GDP in terms of investment.

It’s also about drilling down on the types of advanced materials that are coming online, where we can best be supportive and how UK business can take advantage. That’s why we put out a call for evidence and again, we’re trying to be pretty expansive. We’re currently in listening mode so that the experts out there (both in terms of academia and the people involved in the industries that have made progress already), can inform us, and then over time, we can work with them as government to make sure that we have a clear approach which both benefits the country as a whole, but also puts us at a competitive advantage globally.

The Critical Minerals Strategy

The Critical Minerals Strategy provides high quality, independent advice to the government on certain minerals and metals. It will also suggest suitable actions the government can take to secure sustainable sources of these critical materials to help maintain national security and meet net zero ambitions.

Metals such as lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements are critically important for use across a wide range of applications, including electric car batteries, computer hard drives, and high-tech consumer products.

These critical minerals play a vital role in supplying new green industries, as well as the government’s determination that the UK continues to have a resilient, long-term supply chain to deliver a green industrial revolution.

The Critical Minerals Strategy will be published later this year and will set out steps to ensure the UK’s long-term security of supply for critical minerals. It will help create the conditions needed to grow this vital sector and set out how the UK aims to work with other countries to create international standards and ensure supply chains are robust.

The Advanced Materials Scoping Group

The Advanced Materials Scoping Group will be formed to support the government’s work in the high performance engineered materials that will be critical to the future success of many industries.

Members of the group will be recruited from across industry and academia. The UK already has a world-leading advanced materials science base and the 2010 Nobel prize was awarded to scientists at the University of Manchester for advances in graphene, an ultra-thin, ultra-strong material.

The government has identified advanced materials and their manufacturing as one of the ‘7 technology families’ of its Innovation Strategy – the government’s plan to ensure the UK’s world-leading science and R&D sector helps to create a robust and agile economy that works for the whole of the UK.

These ‘7 technology families’ are transformational technologies that will drive change over the coming decades and where the UK has globally competitive R&D and industrial strength.

Advanced materials include:

Metamaterials: Artificially structured composite materials with unique electromagnetic properties that could transform the communications industry by enabling compact, lightweight 5G antennas that are easier to manufacture, ship and install.

2D materials: Formed with only a single layer of atoms, which can contribute to more efficient batteries for electric vehicles, strengthen traditional materials, and have novel electrical and superconducting applications.

Self-healing and ‘living’ materials: Systems that change shape or structure over time, including self-repairing in response to degradation, such as self-healing roads that fix their own potholes.

Composite structures: Stronger, more lightweight and more durable structures, that can be used as coating technologies that enhance materials such as corrosion resistance.