UK in race to make up lost time

The UK is playing catch-up in the global race to modernise manufacturing technology, but there are some British front-runners, writes Peter Marsh

A series of gleaming machines being assembled on a nondescript Staffordshire industrial estate conjures up something rare – a positive image of the UK’s progress in manufacturing technology.

The £400,000 machines are 3D printing devices made by Renishaw, one of Britain’s leading engineering companies. The backing Renishaw has provided for this emerging technology is a bright spot in the UK’s patchy record over the past 30 years in supporting technical innovation in industry.

As a report on the future of manufacturing by experts working under the government’s Foresight programme shows, the UK’s performance has been “weak relative to international competitors” in a number of key areas related to technology.

“Expenditure on manufacturing research and development has been low, especially with regard to new products, [while] the level of investment in capital equipment has been relatively low for many decades,” the study says.

Britain also scores poorly in a survey of the number of robots – a key indicator of the take-up of automation in industry – conducted by the International Federation of Robotics. According to the latest figures, the UK has only 50 robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing, compared to about 350 for both South Korea and Japan, and 250 for Germany.

But such downbeat data does little to disturb the view of Sir David McMurtry, the long-serving chairman and chief executive of Renishaw, that the UK remains a good place for his company to be based, not least because of access to a skilled workforce.

Britain’s prowess in manufacturing technology has been given a boost by the £10 billion of investments set in train since 2010 by the country’s resurgent car makers

In 2011, Renishaw moved into a new area through buying MTT, a small UK business emerging as a force in 3D printing. The technology, also known as additive manufacturing, describes ways of building up layers of plastic or metal to create novel types of product of shapes and complexity that might be close to impossible to make using conventional techniques.

It has excited widespread interest due to the possibility that over the next 20 years 3D printing could revolutionise many areas of manufacturing.

The machines being made by Renishaw’s additive manufacturing division in Stone, Staffordshire, are based on MTT’s original designs. They add up to the UK’s only substantial production of such hardware. The leaders in the technology are mainly based in the United States and Germany, with China making a strong effort to catch up.

Renishaw’s devices are being bought by industrial engineering businesses in fields such as aerospace and automotive, with volume production of hardware being gradually switched to a new Renishaw plant in South Wales.

Simon Scott, the unit’s director, says the Wales factory’s capacity, now just six machines a month, “should crank up quite a bit” over the next few years.

Renishaw is in the early stages of discussing what could turn out to be an interesting partnership with another UK technology leader, Metalysis. The Yorkshire-based company has developed a new process for creating pure titanium at a much lower cost than the conventional high-energy route for producing the metal.

Since titanium in a powder form is an important material used by 3D printing machines to create new metal parts, the two companies have started exploratory talks over a partnership that could have important implications for potential customers in industries such as aero-engines.

Britain’s prowess in manufacturing technology has also been given a boost by the £10 billion of investments set in train since 2010 by the country’s resurgent car makers.

The companies are led by Jaguar Land Rover, owned by Tata of India, which has been responsible for three quarters of the planned spending, and other foreign-owned businesses, including Nissan and Honda of Japan, and Germany’s BMW.

Much of the investment has been directed into revamping factories with new process technology, plus related outlays on new model introductions involving electric cars or other innovative engine technology.

Even given the UK’s poor general record on manufacturing investments, a few leaders stand out. Among them is AES Engineering, a business that employs 700 people in the UK and has been a consistent high spender on modern machinery that is used to make the company’s mechanical seals required in installations such as chemical plants.

Walking around AES’s main Rotherham factory, managing director Chris Rea points to a line of new top-of-the-range Japanese machine tools, each costing about £750,000. He says the investments pay off in providing the company with a huge amount of flexibility in reacting to customers’ demands for new types of seal.

“We use the machines to make the parts we need at the speed required by our customers, who often don’t want to wait long for a new seal,” he says. “The machines are not so much about helping productivity as enabling us to provide an excellent level of service.”

Another business that sees the link between investment in technology and commercial results is Dunphy Combustion, a Rochdale firm that is a leader in fuel burners for industrial boilers. The company has recently spent £2.8 million on a new research and development centre to work in areas such as developing new burners for biofuels.

Sharon Kuligowski, managing director, says that spending on new technical ideas is key to capitalising on the rising demand for low-energy forms of combustion that has been triggered both by rising fuel costs and increasing worries about global warming.

“Continued innovation will be the only way we will be able to grow,” she says. Nick Bolton, chief executive of OMG, an Oxford-based company which makes “intelligent” cameras for jobs such as automatic road inspection or industrial measurement, is another optimist when it comes to the UK’s broad capabilities in manufacturing-related technologies, for all its perceived failings in the scale of its investments.

Mr Bolton points out that the UK’s manufacturing technology strengths are in areas that are difficult to capture by statistical surveys. He says the UK enjoys close connections between engineering capability and design skills, and has a strong record in processes built around making small batches of high-performance items to meet customers’ deadlines.

“There are many British companies around now which [in manufacturing] can do things that were close to impossible 20 years ago and I think this provides some hope for the next few years,” he concludes.