Out and about: TM on the road again

Posted on 7 Mar 2013 by The Manufacturer

TM's editorial team is out and about at a wide variety of industry conferences, debates and factory tours month in, month out. Let’s get a snapshot of the most interesting trips last month.

Bitter sweet

Observations on EU market mismanagement and the fate of Tate & Lyle Sugars.

Once upon a time, the east end of London was a hive of manufacturing activity, with ships flooding the Thames to bring in commodities and export goods.

Deindustrialisation decimated the area, leaving Tate & Lyle Sugars as one of the last remaining stalwarts of London’s industrial past. But will it last much longer?

In Silvertown, just outside the Thames Tidal Barrier, one of the world’s most efficient refineries is taking a last stand against EU rules that restrict where it can import raw sugar from.

“Since the UK joined the EU, our refinery in Plaistow closed – although we are still there making syrup. This was swiftly followed by our site in Liverpool,” said Tony Bennett, government affairs manager at Tate & Lyle Sugars. “That has all been caused by the EU. It has closed access to raw sugar by placing restrictions on where we can buy sugar from.”

Tate and Lyle Sugars is treading new legal ground by suing the European Commission €198m for mismanaging the sugar market. Its historic London refinery could go out of business within the next five years unless it wins the case or the EU alters its food policies.

The money made from Henry Tate’s industrial empire helped to build one of the world’s most famous art galleries, the Tate Modern – a better use for a great industrial building than dereliction. But how many factory-sized art galleries does London need? Unless the EU makes some changes soon, the Silvertown site will be lucky to become a similar relic.


Convergence, innovation for all and Babel fish

Jane Gray; still feeling bowled over by Nimbus Ninety’s Feb technology and market trends event.

With the slightly eerie sounds of London’s Science Museum by night in the background – the interactive display voiceovers keep going when there’s no one there you know! – delegates gathered on Feb 13 for the launch of a new report Market Trends 2013.

The publication, from technology community group Nimbus Ninety, focuses on convergence in multiple technologies and finds that, on average, businesses now use 5.8 different technologies to achieve any one strategic goal.

It sounds like a headache for anyone trying to prioritise IT investment, but happily we are also told that thinking about IT as a capital expenditure is waning. ‘Democratisiation’ of technology and considering IT spend as user empowerment is on the up as more companies realise the power of the ‘big four’: cloud, big data, mobile and social.

All these converging and interconnected technologies can be picked up intuitively, require little or no physical infrastructure and roll out “quicker than some organisations are ready for” according to one panellist at the report launch event.

The launch of Market Trends 2013 was surrounded with presentations from speakers who put a buzz of enthusiasm into the cross sector audience of IT professionals. I wonder if everyone made it home still believing that anything was possible for them and their company in today’s world – or that it soon will be.

It’s a belief which David Rowan, editor of Wired magazine and chair for the evening, says lies at the centre of the enviable success of Silicon Valley-based organisations. “They maintain a healthy disregard for the impossible,” he said before blasting his audience with a reel of incredible recent technology achievements – not just from Silicon Valley’s cradle of innovation, but from companies large and small the world over.

Some of these mind-blowing bits of science-fact manifest in inspiring products, innovated and leveraged through the use of collaborative tools and crowd funding. Others were outstandingly intelligent business models – often managed by teenage mini-magnates – which exploit social media and mobile payments to turn a quick profit and keep an agile market strategy. These models are forcing large firms to rethink their routes to market says Rowan. In fact, observing the explosion in mobile payments over PayPal for all sorts of products and services in the last few years, Rowan says, “If you have a business and you are not making mobile a priority, go home.”

A personal favourite though – to an avid fan of Hitchhikers Guide who spent her schoolday French lessons wishing hard that someone would get on with inventing the Babel fish – was the recent revelation of Google’s updated real time voice translation technology.

The new ‘conversation mode’ picks up inflections in a human voice and can immediately translate and broadcast into 15 different languages. It’s not faultless, but it’s pretty good. Imagine the time and expense it could take out of international business – no longer the need to be slowed down by intermediaries and pay for interpreters. It could be a door-opener for aspiring exporters, particularly in emerging markets where English is not the de facto language of commerce. @janefagray

Innovation in the carbon kill-chain

Tom Moore reflects on debate at Innovation in Automotive, a Royal Academy of Engineering event.

The conference drew a powerful crowd. All the speeches focused on CO2 saving innovations, a good thing considering that Lord Drayson, managing partner of Drayson Racing Technologies, labeled car pollution the “invisible killer in our cities.”

“It is not a question of if, but when cities ban high-polluting cars,” he added. Lord Drayson stated that it is only a matter of time before only electric cars are allowed to drive in urban areas as harmful exhaust particulate can never be eliminated. The audience fought back with a vengeance, accusing Lord Drayson of not knowing his facts and using a single outdated source for his claim.

Mobile phones came out when Lord Drayson mentioned London Air, an app created by King’s College in London that visualises pollution levels. The red lines replicate London’s road network. Coincidence? Lord Drayson thinks not. The former petrolhead turned political activist and advocate of the electric car believes that if sales don’t take off for battery powered cars, then legislation will subvert consumer choice.

Turning a narrowed eye on Government, Jerry Hardcastle, technical director at Nissan, said that most business support is too small-scale to benefit car manufacturers. “The Patent Box wouldn’t make much difference,” he stated, while Professor David Hughes from the Business Innovation Group commented that he “couldn’t see how the Patent Box would boost innovation in automotive R&D.”

Many manufacturers wore a worried expression when Mark Walker, general manager at vehicle hire company ZipCar, said that young people don’t want to buy cars any more. As the only audience member that fell into his ‘millenials’ category, I found out that none of my friends agreed with this sentiment at my local pub. For the record, no one was driving that night.

Furthermore, the gleeful look on a certain bearded journalist’s face after cheekily blagging a ride around the block in the £195,000 McLaren MP4-12C which sat outside the event, suggested that car ownership as an aspiration is far from dead. There are perks to the job! @thomasmoore88