The Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge (IfM), explains the opportunities and challenges of manufacturing in Northern Ireland.
- Manufacturing in Northern Ireland is more important to the regional economy as a percentage compared with the rest of the UK.
- Northern Ireland economy is extensively made up of SMEs many of which, without help to innovate and incorporate new technologies, may struggle to remain internationally competitive and hence become vulnerable to international competition.
- The new Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) in Northern Ireland represents a significant investment of nearly £100 million for the region, under the Belfast Region City Deal.
- IfM Engage, the knowledge-transfer arm of the Institute for Manufacturing, helped establish the technology strategy for AMIC using a combination of ecosystem mapping and roadmapping.
- Six key themes were identified as priorities for the future – each offering substantial and persistent medium- to long-term benefits for the advanced manufacturing competitiveness of Northern Ireland.
- AMIC plans to work closely with industry stakeholders to support the growth of advanced manufacturing in Northern Ireland.
Manufacturing in Northern Ireland is more important to the regional economy as a percentage compared with the rest of the UK. In recent years, employment in the Northern Ireland manufacturing sector has grown more than four times faster than the rest of the UK. Manufacturing accounts for 11% of employment and over 15% of Gross Value Added (GVA), making it a key sector in the Northern Ireland economy.
But while manufacturing has a strong local competitive position, it faces challenges to compete globally. While there are some well-known major players, the Northern Ireland economy is extensively made up of SMEs many of which, without help to innovate and incorporate new technologies, may struggle to remain internationally competitive and hence become vulnerable to international competition.
IfM Engage, the knowledge-transfer arm of the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge, was approached by the Northern Ireland Technology Centre at Queen’s University Belfast to help establish the technology strategy for the new Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) in Northern Ireland, which represents a significant investment of nearly £100m for the region, under the Belfast Region City Deal.
One of the key challenges facing AMIC was the need to consult with a wide range of industry stakeholders, from SMEs to world-leading multinational organisations. Using a combination of ecosystem mapping and strategic roadmapping, IfM Engage helped to address this challenge by involving representatives from a range of sectors, including aerospace, automotive, mechanical handling, electrical, healthcare, process and food and drink, as well as automation providers, consultancies and other relevant services. The process included interviews with key stakeholders and the creation of a high-level ecosystem map and associated landscape for the industry, through roadmapping and ecosystem mapping workshops.
A roadmap for innovation
IfM Engage’s workshops allowed stakeholders to work together to develop a shared vision for the future of advanced manufacturing in Northern Ireland, and the associated technologies, capabilities and enablers required to deliver that value. This helped to build a sense of ownership and alignment among industry stakeholders and ensured that the strategy is forward-looking and meets the needs of industry.
The process ultimately helped AMIC to identify six key themes as priorities for this future strategy. Each of these themes was seen as offering substantial and persistent medium- to long-term benefits for the advanced manufacturing competitiveness of Northern Ireland.
Four themes were assessed as able to be readily adopted by the supply chain or adopted with concerted efforts by government and industry, as the capability already exists. These were:
- Connected, integrated products and supply chain and business models
- Light weight high spec/high-performance materials
- Testing and simulation services
- Robotics, automation, and digital manufacturing
Two other themes were assessed as presenting a scale of challenge that needs significant investment at a UK ecosystem level, offering the potential of a pioneering role for Northern Ireland. These were:
- Manufacturing decarbonisation
- Food and drink processing
The innovation challenge
The role of SMEs and innovation in the economy was a dominant issue throughout. “Whilst there are notable exceptions, Northern Ireland’s advanced manufacturing delegates assessed themselves as having a relatively weak global competitive position and relatively low knowledge of international players and requirements, dominated as it is by SMEs, particularly in food and drink processing” says Andrew Gill, industrial associate for IfM Engage and the project lead.
“There is a perception that most SMEs are not great at innovation. They may be successful in their own niche, but face barriers to investment – including perhaps due to a sense that advanced and digital technologies are complicated, costly and risky to implement. When you are looking at trying to raise the game of a whole economy, and the majority of companies have a big challenge to raise their game, how do you access them to encourage them to improve their innovation capability? That’s what we’re trying to answer.”
Andrew also noted the risk of international competition “hollowing out” these SMEs. “Delegates felt that a lot of Northern Ireland companies are relatively strong competitively locally and have a significant opportunity from Northern Ireland’s unique position post-Brexit. But many interviewees and delegates felt there was a risk that international competition are going to come in from outside and eat their lunch, so to speak.’”
In addition to roadmapping, the ecosystem mapping helped to identify the key members of the local and national innovation ecosystem, and to understand the value they bring and the potential business risks they face. This information was used to develop a more detailed view of the industrial landscape.
“I think some significant insights came out of the ecosystem mapping,” Andrew said. “Economies like Northern Ireland are perhaps interesting because they can be easier to get your head around and observe cause and effect.”
About the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre
The Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre operates at the interface between academia and industry by creating new opportunities for innovative manufacturing in the Belfast City Region. A state-of-the-art Factory of the Future is planned as the flagship facility of the project, with an ambition to be Northern Ireland’s national centre for Advanced Manufacturing. AMIC caters to the Manufacturing Sector in NI by supporting small to medium-sized enterprises.
The next steps will be to take this strategy forward and begin implementing the key themes identified as priorities. This will involve working closely with industry stakeholders to develop and deliver the necessary innovation investment and support to support the growth of advanced manufacturing in Northern Ireland.
“The biggest challenge is making sure that the initiative makes a difference for the base of SMEs in Northern Ireland,” says Gill. “The roadmap has been welcomed across our stakeholders, but they now face the task of how to implement it. If successful, this is another area where Northern Ireland can be a model for other similar regional economies.”
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