Policy point – Time to think horizontally

Posted on 1 Sep 2013 by The Manufacturer

Gordon Attenborough, sector head of design & production at the
Institution of Engineering and Technology calls for cross-sector innovation to optimise UK manufacturing competitiveness.

Gordon Attenborough, sector head of design & production at the institution of Engineering and Technology

Policy point is the IET’s regular column for TM. It outlines the institution’s stance on how its members, and the wider engineering community should seek to move their companies, and their own careers, forward for a more competitive UK industrial base.

The scale of improvement in UK manufacturing activity in June, as reported by the Office for National Statistics, may have come as something of a surprise. But like the summer heat wave, it was, nonetheless, most welcome.

Equally, Mark Carney’s revelation, that the Bank of England would not raise interest rates until unemployment fell to 7% was unexpected. In heralding a further ‘hoped-for’ period of financial stability, the Governor’s bold move looked to lift the mood, increase confidence and encourage business to reinstate plans to invest.

So with the holiday period coming to an end what, then, are the prospects for UK manufacturing? How can we most effectively build on what appears to be grounds for cautious optimism whilst the overall position remains fragile?

Will a ‘more of the same – done better, faster, cheaper’ approach engineer a manufacturing renaissance the UK economy needs? The answer to this is yes, in part, however in the longer term, regaining a competitive edge and keeping one step ahead internationally may require some new methodologies for the effective identification and exploitation of new innovations and market opportunities.

One potential such method is inspired by an analysis of the things UK manufacturing does well and centres on the way in which we innovate and the timeliness of a step-change in our approach.

Engineers have an innate ability to solve problems. Backed by a strong commitment to R&D, UK engineers can lead the field when it comes to invention and innovation. In particular, they succeed at a granular level in building the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to create solutions which address specific opportunities within tightly defined, vertical sectors.

But that’s just it. Successful innovation has been largely based around vertical not horizontal sectors. Knowledge transfer – applying and adapting an innovation from one sector to another – isn’t a new idea, but there needs to be a more systematic, intelligent exploration of pre-existing solutions, skills and knowledge which seeks to effectively exploit them across sectors.

With the growth potential it could offer, innovating horizontally is something that we should be debating and developing on a much more consistent and coherent basis.