Survival of the fittest

Today’s, tomorrow’s and next week’s sector is heavily reliant upon a combined effort that fosters the right market for R&D funding, entrepreneurialism, collaboration with the universities and, above all, innovation, says Roy Pulley of MAS WM

The Government’s Manufacturing Strategy delineates an ‘Innovation Nation’
– one that wields the considerable strength of the public sector’s purchasing power to drive innovation across the board. Infrastructure, design, process, product and technology are all areas that will benefit from and are cultivated out of a spark of innovative creative thinking.

The Government is helping to build our reputation as a world class innovative nation through its network of business support agencies. These stem from the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) who are responsible for SME business advice services such as Business Link, as well as the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), which supports manufacturers. Through a series of funding streams, the RDAs can stimulate the innovative community by pulling together a number of resources from within the region that, when amalgamated, should produce ‘the goods’. What do I mean by ‘the goods’? Quite simply, I mean a sophisticated, well run sector that competes with the rest of the world in producing high value items that sell on the global market.

We are already competing: 25 per cent of the UK’s technical R&D funding comes from overseas. Contrast this with Germany at only five per cent and France at 10 per cent and you’ll see that we’re stretching ahead of our European neighbours. Other countries want to invest in what we do. Why? Because we have a number of outlets to develop ideas and turn them into consumer and business products the rest of the world wants. But ideas alone do not make money; what we must improve upon is taking these ideas from the drawing board to market. Big business has the luxury of being able to invest capital in product testing, development and market research, but what about SMEs whose budgets are more constrained?

In the West Midlands, for example, we have successfully piloted the Product Innovation Consortium (PIC), delivered by the regional MAS and Advantage West Midlands. The region’s RDA funded this project to the tune of £500,000, with the goal of encouraging entrepreneurial and innovative spirit and turning it into realistic, workable and profitable products. The challenge for PIC was for manufacturers to take a more sustainable and innovative approach to product development, and the initiative was aimed at assisting manufacturers to increase global competitiveness by drawing on the region’s world class creative capabilities. This involved looking at the best practice standards set by some of the global manufacturers in the region, as well as developing ideas using the latest technologies and testing methodologies in conjunction with the universities.

The original response recorded 90 expressions of interest, which was whittled down to 50 and then 18 companies to go through the rigorous process proposed by PIC. Importantly, the process was designed to not only promote great ideas and get them out to market as quickly as possible, it was also there to stop companies wasting time and money on ideas that were never going to work, which is often a tough call to make if passion and time have gone into the project. A number of the companies involved realised very quickly that success is not simply realising the potential of an idea, but also realising the boundaries and limitations of an idea. That’s not to say that we encouraged giving up at the first hurdle – precious time and hours were spent developing a number of products which are, as we speak, being brought into the marketplace.

One company that worked with PIC is Cobra Automotive. Cobra’s innovation was not only environmentally beneficial but also offered significant commercial opportunities to the automotive industry – one of the traditional West Midlands sectors that has changed drastically over the past two decades.

Survival of the fittest

Providers of a successful niche service, Cobra works with leading automotive manufacturers such as Volvo, VW and General Motors and is at the forefront of innovation in the automotive interior sector with high-level investment in
leading-edge technology such as laser inspection.

The use of either plywood or very complex composite structures, made from polyurethanes and glass fibre to manufacture load-floors, is common practice in
this sector and Cobra worked with PIC to investigate, design, develop and test a completely radical departure from existing load-floor technology.

Cobra’s structural load-floor made from a mix of EPP as an outer casing, which encapsulates a structural polypropylene core, and not only gives superior loadfloor is deflection characteristics but is also completely recyclable when used in conjunction with polypropylene carpet. PIC worked with Cobra to not only identify technical partners to help develop the product, but they also part-funded the prototype tooling for the outer casing, which involved supporting costs for testing and validation for industrial testing. This was especially important so that rigorous testing procedures could be implemented in the types of environment they will be used in, not just in factory surroundings. Where PIC was able to help most was in the speed of the process – Cobra needed to pull the product through quickly, to satisfy customer demands, and the project lead time
was around six months.

The automotive sector is not dead and buried in the West Midlands – it’s diversifying in order to keep up with demand, meet ever more stringent safety regulations and give the big manufacturers what they want. Another automotive company PIC worked with was Concept Mouldings. Established in 1991, the company is a manufacturer and specialist in the creation of engineering solutions for the automotive sector as well as a wide range of other markets as diverse as the leisure, medical and office furnishing industries.

Basing its research and innovation on a 2005 European study that showed one in five people killed on the UK’s roads were pedestrians, the company realised that safety developments in this sector is one of the fastest growing areas in the automotive industry. Car manufacturers are constantly developing new and unique systems to make motoring safer for pedestrians and Concept Mouldings’ latest developments supported both this and the meeting of European legislative requirements for Frontal Protection Systems for Motor Vehicles.

In the run up to May 2007, Concept Mouldings launched frontal protection systems for a number of vehicles including 4X4s, SUVs, pick ups and light
commercial vehicles (LCVs). On the 25 May that year non-compliant bull bars and FPSs to the regulation 2005/66/EC became illegal.

Working with PIC allowed Concept Mouldings to streamline internal processes ensuring the business was fit and lean. PIC also helped create an infrastructure;
an element recognised as a key influencer in moving the company from an SME to being regarded as a larger business. Before PIC started work with Concept Mouldings, the products themselves were well developed; however, the manufacturing side was not in a fit state. This is where we were able to help.

By streamlining and improving the efficiency of the operations, we were able to help Concept Mouldings meet their customers’ demands.

Concept Mouldings’ Ian Finney commented: “[PIC] were a helping guide to the right answers. In particular, we found access to government funding quite
cumbersome – PIC guided us through the system to help us with the process.”

So there’s money to be made in producing high value products, but is there a future in getting rid of waste products? The short answer is YES. The WEEE directive came into force a little over a year ago to encourage not only the reduction of waste electrical goods being produced, but also the reuse, recovery and recycling of them – no mean feat but an important one if we are to
aggressively reduce our collective carbon footprint.

One company that has caught on to both central and local government’s ongoing commitment to refuse collection and recycling is Kidderminster-based Central
Weighing, a specialist in vehicle weighing, tracking and management systems. In the UK it offers nationwide coverage and is represented internationally by trained distributors in over 30 countries.

With moves muted towards a ‘pay as you throwaway’ approach to domestic waste, Central Weighing’s integrated refuse solution is a timely innovation
for contractors and householders to prove waste collection via GPS technology.

PIC supported Central Weighing by providing advice and funding assistance, allowing work to progress more quickly. The integrated refuse solution provides a
range of data via a web based solution, capturing real time data ranging from which bins are being collected and when, to the weight of each bin.

In addition, the system will identify individual bins to a householder’s address via a chip tag located in the lid of each wheelie bin. The future of manufacturing
will depend heavily on seeking out and capitalising on niche opportunities.

These are just a selection of not only the companies helped by PIC, but the companies that are spending their resources wisely on R&D. Furthermore, these
companies also have the following factors to contend with: high labour costs, increasing energy prices and expensive transportation overheads – they’ve had
to therefore adjust accordingly in order to stay in business. They’ve done this through seeking prudent support and advice and have concentrated on highvalue,
knowledge-intensive goods that are attractive to domestic and global markets.

Roy Pulley is the specialist product innovation advisor at MAS WM