Manufacturing professors: UK’s ‘tech incubator’ system working

Posted on 20 Sep 2012

Leading manufacturing academics have praised the UK’s system for pulling research into industry – Britain’s answer to the Fraunhofer Institute – making academic research more industry-focused and commercially effective.

Haydn Martin, University of Huddersfield, speaks on integrated optic inferometers at microscale embedded surface metrology

At the Manufacturing the Future conference at Loughborough University this week, run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council (EPSRC), leading manufacturing experts compared the UK’s university and industry ecosystem with that of Germany and other countries.

They concluded that the UK’s system “really works” and is providing taxpayers with value for money.

Up until the mid-2000s, the way in which university research and funding was linked to the wider needs of British industry was disconnected and ad hoc, with little overarching strategy and no so called ‘technology incubators’ to help synchronise research with business.

Senior panel takes questions on Day One (from L): David Williams of Loughborough University, Les Lee of Ford, Mark Claydon-Smith (EPSRC) and Dame Julia King of Aston University.

“This system is not the Fraunhofer – which has its own flaws – but it is now really working,” said Professor Raj Roy, chair of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Through-Life Engineering Services. “Ours [the UK’s] is at a different scale but the core universities are integrating well with business. The TSB [Technology Strategy Board] is working well in sync with the EPSRC, whereas a few years ago they were competing.”

The TSB, formed in 2006 as a bridge between good ideas and commercially successful products, the EPSRC, the Government and other organisations such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology, devised a system to better link research with markets and business needs.

Michael Kitson from the University of Cambridge says the Government should pick winners.

The UK system has identified several areas where Britain’s academic and industrial base has a comparative advantage over that of other countries. These include fields such as photonics, regenerative medicine, precision optics, composites and more recently graphene and synthetic biology.

This culminated in a new industrial strategy announced last week by Business Minister Vince Cable. Yesterday, Science Minister David Willetts reiterated the five pillars of the strategy – covering a business investment bank, sectors, skills, technologies and procurement – and confirmed £14m of new funding for engineering doctoral training based on the CIMs – Centres for Innovative Manufacturing.

CEO of the EPSRC Professor David Delpy told The Manufacturer: “The landscape for research and industry has changed hugely.”

Hadyn Martin, Duncan Hand and Frank Albri field questions on “Components enabling precision manufacturing” at the EPSRC’s Manufacturing the Future conference

“Particularly in the engineering science space, we have an academic base now that is incredibly engaged with industry. Forty per cent of all the research projects we fund have a collaborator who is either an industrial partner or a user of the research. Some 2,000 collaborators are on research grants that EPSRC is putting out into this university sector.”

“The UK is second only to the US in terms of the number of collaborations, and I suspect per capita we are number one,” he added.

Delegates at the stand of the Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability.

Often compared with the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, the UK system – forming a loose pentagon made up of industry, universities, the Catapults, the TSB which funds companies, and the EPSRC which funds the academic part – was shaped following a report by polymath Hermann Hauser commissioned by Lord Peter Mandelson in 2009.

Dr Thomas Bauernhansl from the Fraunhofer IPA consultancy in Stuttgart said that his organisation was not flawless.

Commanding a budget of about Eu1.8bn per annum, it dwarfs the TSB’s funding for the Catapult centres, which includes high value manufacturing, of £200m. But it is expensive, at Eu1,500 per day for a consultant, so excludes most of the smaller SMEs contained within the Mittelstand, which many people erroneously believe it directly helps.

Fraunhofer is about 25%-30% funded by the private sector,  appears more financially independent of the state. But in a poor year with little industrial sponsorship, the federal government must plug the gap. Some delegates pointed out that this is easier in the rich regions, or Länder, such as Bayern, but less secure in poorer regions.

Companies who are following the wave of manufacturing funding and national “strategizing” will be keen to know how much of EPSRC funded research is genuinely relevant to business, and in which areas.

Robin Wilson, lead technology for high value manufacturing at the TSB, said: “I am not an advocate of overly focusing on performance metrics, and we have to give academia a free rein to research on some ‘blue sky’ subjects with no visible application. But it is a fine line to balance this with industry’s, and the tax payer’s, demand for value for money and relevance.”

“We have our eye on getting this balance right. But generally manufacturing engineering research is sponsored, so in most cases it has very tangible applications for the real world,” he said.