Why partnerships are needed for UK manufacturing to flourish

The changing political and economic landscape means, more than ever, people will be looking to our industrial sector to play its part in the future prosperity of the country.

However, this cannot be achieved by UK manufacturing alone. It requires partnerships and understanding of the research challenges faced, and the tools required to meet them. Professor Philip Nelson discusses the issues.

Knowledge Transfer Partnership - Working together as a team for innovative strategies and creating new ideas and products through lesdership and education represented by two human heads and a lightbulb in the shape of gears and cogs - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Bringing researchers together on projects and connecting universities to business can accelerate the translation of fundamental research from labs to shop floors to showrooms – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The UK excels in producing talented individuals who push at boundaries, ask questions, pursue world-leading research and create products that change the way we live. Without opportunities to explore, science cannot progress, and without scientific progress, innovation of new products, treatments and infrastructure will stall.

That is why it is vitally important for us to nurture the country’s research base and continue to support both fundamental science and help researchers engage with the application of their results.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), plays a key role here by laying solid research foundations on which manufacturing can build sustained, long-term success. We do this through support for cutting-edge research and the development of highly skilled people.

Our research and skills programme touches all the UK’s manufacturing industries, as well as enabling the creation of new industries and capabilities. Experience shows that bringing researchers together on projects and connecting universities to business can accelerate the translation of fundamental research from the lab to the shop floor to the showroom.

Growing skills

We also know that investing in skills is vital to maintain the flow of talent and invention. One way we do this is through funding postgraduate research, either through Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs), which are funds managed by universities and distributed to individuals, or through Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) which have a specific research theme.

EPSRC currently supports 115 CDTs, which bring together diverse areas of expertise to train doctoral students with the skills, knowledge and confidence to tackle today’s evolving issues and future science and engineering challenges.

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These centres also provide a supportive and exciting environment for students. They create new working cultures, build relationships between teams in universities and forge lasting links with industry.

In addition, EPSRC also supports PhD studentships via Industrial Cooperative Awards in Science & Technology (iCASE) funding, where businesses take the lead in arranging projects with an academic partner of their choice.

We issued a new call for universities to apply for funding for a further round of CDTs in early 2018. This closed at the end of July and we are looking forward to seeing which applications succeed.

Build with business

Business growth ideas innovation competitive advantage market share - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Without opportunities to explore, science cannot progress, and without scientific progress, innovation will stall – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Over the years, EPSRC has evolved how it engages with business. In manufacturing particularly we have long recognised the importance of working with industrial partners, and in the 1990s developed a blueprint for centre-based collaborations addressing specific manufacturing challenges through multiple partnerships with business and other sectors of the economy.

This approach saw the formation of 16 EPSRC Innovative Manufacturing Research Centres (IMRCs). Over a decade, EPSRC invested a total of £192m, which was supplemented by £207m in industrial support from over 700 collaborators.

The programme created over 1,300 doctoral-level manufacturing engineers; created 160 new jobs; safeguarded a further 230 jobs and brought 20 exciting new technologies to market.

By 2011, a new UK-wide network of 16 EPSRC Centres for Innovative Manufacturing (CIMs) emerged, funded over a five-year period. Tasked with enabling the commercial development of future manufacturing processes in areas such as advanced materials, sustainable feedstocks and design technologies, these university-based centres have proved highly successful in linking developments in science and engineering to applications.

Future manufacturing hubs

Over the past two years we have evolved our partnership model away from single centres of future manufacturing excellence towards a hub and spoke model, drawing on the strengths of a network of university-based research, in close collaboration with industrial partners.

In 2017, we announced six new EPSRC Future Manufacturing Hubs, bringing the total to eight, which are supported by an EPSRC investment of more than £82m, with contributions of £140m from over 200 industry and academic partners. This investment is laying the foundations that allow industry and our world-leading universities to thrive for years to come, and will be supported by the government’s Industrial Strategy.

Some of these new hubs will build on the work of earlier CIMs, while some are completely new ventures that have strong links with industry and other research organisations, and are making the most of regional research ecosystems across the UK. A case in point is the new hub at the University of Sheffield, which will join forces with the university’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

EPSRC has evolved its partnership model away from single centres of future manufacturing excellence towards a hub and spoke model - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
EPSRC has evolved its partnership model away from single centres of future manufacturing excellence towards a hub and spoke model – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Each of the eight hubs leads a programme of innovative research related to commercialising early-stage research in fields such as targeted healthcare, composites and advanced powders. Eighteen universities are involved in the initiative.

This is a real meeting of minds, well attuned to what is needed to drive innovative research to the next level.

A new call for three additional Future Manufacturing hubs opened for expressions of interest in November 2017, with a proposed budget of £10m per hub.

Most recently, and on top of these hubs, the first investments of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund in a battery research institute (The Faraday Institution) and a series of hubs focussed on developing robotics for extreme environments have already been made. More are planned and are highly likely to have similar overlaps with groundwork laid by EPSRC for future collaborative projects.

Prosperity partnerships

July 2017 saw the beginning of the latest stage of our evolving support for relationships between academia and business with the launch of Prosperity Partnerships. We are overseeing a total investment of £78m in the initiative, which will be funded by EPSRC, the government and industry. For the first time, the initial expression of interest stage was led by the main business partner, rather than the academic lead.

Ten universities are leading on 11 projects that range from the future networks for digital infrastructure to offshore wind, and they will partner with businesses operating in key areas of the innovation landscape. Business partners include household names such as Siemens, BP and Unilever, as well as some of the UK’s most dynamic SMEs. A further call for expressions of interest in new partnerships proposals opened in August 2017 and will be taken forward in 2018.

Partners in UKRI

In April 2018, EPSRC joined forces with the other UK Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England to form a new single body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which has a strong focus on collaborative working. This new body embraces the very same values we have been championing for decades.

EPSRC will be making the most of this unique partnership. Even closer working relationships with our research and innovation partners will help us to develop the skills, new ideas and new technologies that industry requires – and the UK needs – as we continue to invest in a productive, connected, resilient and healthy nation.


Professor Philip Nelson CBE – Executive Chair, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council