Having arrived at the Technology Strategy Board last year fresh from Airbus, chief executive Iain Gray is ideally placed to consider how technology and innovation can take manufacturing forward into a new age. Becky Done talked to him about a strategy that will help to redefine the sector for future generations
Iain Gray is a man with vision; and as chief executive of the UK’s Technology
Strategy Board (TSB), his options for channelling it are likely to be limitless. With the main purpose of the TSB being to promote innovation, its High Value Manufacturing competition, due for launch in January, is designed to do just that. It will provide manufacturers with a golden opportunity to attract investment for projects which promote international competitiveness, and to pitch for funding supporting specific research.
The competition is backed by £24 million of funding, and Gray is clearly excited about the new prospects for manufacturing that could be unearthed: “We’ve had, over the last few years, some very big high-value manufacturing competitions – and we get very good quality applications,” he enthuses.
Manufacturing is close to Gray’s heart, as he came to the TSB from Airbus, where, for the three years prior to his departure, he was managing director and general manager. Such a solid manufacturing background has no doubt afforded him an invaluable understanding of what the sector needs going forward: “There’s no doubt that having spent 27 years in the manufacturing environment, I have an understanding of emerging manufacturing technologies and methodologies,” he says. “I’ve got a view of the importance of working with the supply chain, I can understand manufacturing in an international context and [issues around] competitiveness and I have an understanding of the context of the world in which we live. If you look at manufacturing businesses, productivity is a key requirement, skills are a key requirement, and exploitation of technology is a key challenge,” he says.
So coming from Airbus has been useful in terms of insight and experience for life at the TSB, but Gray acknowledges a single sector background can also throw up challenges. “Having come from a single sector – aerospace manufacturing – I have found one of the great things about this organisation is being able to draw
people from all different sectors and technology areas together. But one of the challenges in that is providing focus and trying to develop detailed strategies of how to move forward. The biggest opportunity is that we’ve got an organisation containing people from a lot of different sectors and therefore a lot of understanding of each other’s experiences. One of the things that has been
most exciting – and challenging – is how technologies in one sector can actually be moved across into other sectors.”
This principle of active sector integration and knowledge-sharing is, Gray believes, a key enabler of innovation – itself an undisputed gateway to success –
and this means an ability to think laterally.
“Innovation is hugely important. In the UK we find it hard to compete on pure cost alone, so really the way to make ourselves globally competitive is by doing
things differently. It’s about productivity improvements; about technology and applications of new ways of working; about the application of new manufacturing
technologies and new manufacturing methods. And it’s probably about the innovative way in which we bring designers, engineers and manufacturing engineers together in terms of innovative working arrangements – for example, in co-located teams – and it’s about the cultural aspects of working together as well. In all those innovations, there’s a common theme in terms
of doing things differently.”
Collaboration of this sort will be a key factor in the success of UK manufacturing on the global stage, hopes Gray. But promoting success is something at which, in his opinion, manufacturers have not excelled in the past. He hopes that now, with an increasing show of support from the Government, this could start to change – a shift, as an ex-manufacturer himself, he would be extremely happy to experience. “I was very privileged to be part of the Ministerial Manufacturing
Advisory Group which put the new manufacturing strategy together through the summer and autumn of this year,” he says. “One of the key themes arising
from that was the Government’s absolute recognition of what they refer to as the mixed and balanced economy, and the importance of manufacturing in the overall economy – and the recognition of that importance.”
He believes a distorted picture of the health of manufacturing in the UK is prevalent, and that the pivotal role the sector plays across the economy often slips under the radar. “Manufacturing is not in decline,” he asserts, “but it is changing. I think the Government itself is starting to recognise the role that manufacturing plays in the service sector: in the design, the production, the manufacture and the service itself. So when people talk about a service
economy, quite often it is manufacturing companies that are actually directly engaged in the service economy itself,” he explains. “The Government is
strongly recognising the role of manufacturing and is really looking at ways and means by which it can demonstrate that.”
Gray acknowledges that the TSB’s influence on the manufacturing sector is more indirect than direct, but the still believes the organisation has an extremely
important role to play. “An increased focus and emphasis on manufacturing is hugely important, and our organisation is the key interface with a lot
of manufacturing businesses. We see many of the success stories in bioscience, pharmaceutical, automotive and aerospace, as well as some of the smaller manufacturing businesses. One of the roles of our organisation is the identification of those success stories; of the really good things – because
that’s something that we’ve not always been so good at here in the UK. I don’t know whether it’s a cultural issue associated with engineers and manufacturers,”
he muses, “but somehow, the manufacturing sector is happy to quietly get on with it and not always talk about its successes; and then we wonder why people
aren’t attracted into it. I think it is incumbent on us all, and the TSB has a very key role to play in helping to promote manufacturing success stories.”
January’s competition is one example of such activity. “It’s part of a continuing theme in terms of the support of high-value manufacturing and it’s another exciting opportunity for manufacturing businesses to collaborate with each other,” he explains. “One of the things that excites me is when you see one
manufacturing technology going into another sector and I think in the competition, the opportunity to do that is very good.”
Another area within which Gray believes the TSB can have strong sway is that of skills. “Our organisation isn’t specifically addressing the skills need,” he acknowledges, “but it’s very much influencing it, in terms of pointing to the skills needs of future manufacturing products and new methods. It’s about influencing the shape of the skills that we need for the future by helping to develop R&D projects. It’s about having programmes that can employ people that develop new skills. And it’s about things like the Knowledge Transfer Programme that will help to transfer knowledge from higher education institutes into small manufacturing businesses as well. While we’re not addressing skills directly, I recognise skills as a hugely important issue. Our role is partly about influencing that agenda.
Some suggest that UK manufacturing has fallen behind on the global stage and I am curious to hear Gray’s take on that opinion. “I don’t subscribe to the view that we’ve necessarily fallen behind,” he insists. “I subscribe to the view that what we’ve not done is communicate to people the changing world of manufacturing. A lot of people’s perception of manufacturing in the UK has been very much based around the old traditional manufacturing sectors. And we’ve not always been good at telling people that the world of manufacturing has changed, so they think of manufacturing as negative.”
They say enthusiasm is infectious; and it is this, combined with Gray’s propensity for forward thinking, that will surely help to fuel a new momentum in manufacturing nationwide.