The EPSRC Centres for Innovative Manufacturing may mean little to many companies, but don’t underestimate their influence in shaping UK industrial strategy. Prof David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Centre, explains the role of the Centres and how they link with the better known Catapults.
TM: What is the purpose the of the centres?
There are 12 centres. The first three were fasttracked by Labour in January 2010 after we’d made a decision to restructure the IMRCs (Innovative Manufacturing Research Centres). A further nine were launched in June 2011. We’ve used the centres as a way of pulling together critical mass and academics around a particular grand challenge, or market sector, for many years.
How do you choose the centres and what they specialise in?
One criterion is the strength of the academic base in the UK – based on citations, the number of grants we fund, and so on. With strong areas where the UK is leading academically there is an argument for building on that lead, especially where additional funding from the EU or large international programmes is likely. Secondly, the centres have about 25 strategic partnerships, with either companies or industrial sectors, such as the Mobile VCE [Virtual Centre of Excellence]. These focus us on sectors where there is a unique UK strength and ability to grow. They are also based on high technology, strong fundamental science and engineering.
But in the end the choice comes down to peer review – we issue calls for centres in a particular field. Sometimes we’ll use our knowledge of the academic base to put forward certain groups with strengths. We haven’t marshalled people like the TSB’s Catapults have, but we identify people who we’d hope would come together. An example is our composites centre, which selected Bristol, Cranfield, Nottingham and Manchester universities.
It’s essential that the EPSRC Centres are doing work that is of relevance to their industrial partners. The successful bids must have strong industrial backing, industrial advisory boards, and companies that are giving them cash and kind directly.
“Our strategic partnerships bring money into the centres, which goes to the academic groups to tackle programmes that are relevant to each partnership.”
How are the centres funded?
The EPSRC is publically-funded. Our strategic partnerships bring money into the centres, which goes to the academic groups to tackle programmes that are relevant to each partnership. It doesn’t come to us. In the last SR, the strategic partnerships brought in over £100 million in cash to the academic base and about £700 million in cash and kind.
What are the Centres’ KPIs?
It’s tricky. These are discovery-led centres, investigating ideas at low technology readiness levels. At the same time, work needs to be relevant to their industrial partners and the industrial advisory board tends to push for KPIs. In response, each centre is drawing up its own KPIs with its board which can be a combination of academic merit measures plus the transferability of their research into their industrial partners. In addition, many of the centres are associated with one of our doctoral training centres. So a lot of the fundamental output, or KPIs, for the centres is trained people.
Catapults – how synchronised is your work with theirs?
The TSB is down the road and the Research Councils have a Joint Strategy Group with the Technology Strategy Board. We fed into the pool of information the TSB used to produce its long list of sectors from which it chose the Catapults. The TSB is making slightly different decisions to ours; theirs benefit the UK economy, ours are longer term, and benefit the world as well as UK plc.
With respect, I would hope that the Catapult centres had been chosen because they build on the underpinning academic base of the IMRCs and the SIMs – the TSB has only been around for four years. [Centres and Catapults] are not identical, they don’t duplicate work.”
Some answers were backed up by Prof Derek Gillespie of the EPSRC
A fuller account of this interview can be read on www.themanufacturer.com