Catapulting British innovation to success

British inventions are often monetised overseas and the benefits accrue elsewhere. From the world wide web to the electric car, this is the land of missed opportunity.

But that is changing thanks to the Catapult initiative, a nationwide network of technology centres, which are bringing British inventiveness back home. Catapults offer support, advice and technical know-how to businesses to help them bridge the gap between early-stage innovation and full-scale commercial production.

Catapults are playing a key role in advising innovators on how to profit from transformative new technologies

As the UK stands on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, Catapults are playing a key role in advising innovators on how to profit from transformative new technologies.

Established by government-funded development body Innovate UK, there are 13 Catapults dedicated to different areas of innovation. To back specialised manufacturing, the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult is helping innovators make the most of a range of emerging technologies.

Businesses with a great idea or piece of research they want to turn into a market-leading product can work with one of seven specialised HVM Catapult Centres nationwide.

Nigel Perry, chief executive of the Centre for Process Innovation, an HVM Catapult Centre based in Darlington, says the centres offer unrivalled assistance to innovative businesses and can help them transform their prospects. “HVM Catapult Centres help companies reduce risk in the adoption of new technologies. Whether they are looking at a specific manufacturing operation or the entire supply chain logistics, the HVM Catapult Centres can substantially derisk the process.

“Companies work faster and quicker with the Catapult than they would on their own. They might be reluctant to progress or unable to deploy the resources that they need and find that they struggle to progress without the sort of advice we can offer them.”

Mr Perry says the HVM Catapult Centres have in-depth expertise, which can help businesses improve productivity and boost profitability. “There is a practice and art the Catapults can bring to help companies explore how new technology can be introduced to improve their manufacturing process. This is vital for bringing great new products to market,” he says.

HVM Catapult Centres work with manufacturers from the biggest giants such as Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Boeing down to small businesses and charities. In one project, the HVM Catapult helped Pashley Cycles, Britain’s longest-established bicycle manufacturer, develop a new bike, which was selected as the next-generation bicycle for the London cycle-hire scheme sponsored by Santander.

Pashley worked with the WMG Catapult Centre based at Warwick University. They jointly used 3D printing, laser scanning and measurement technology to create prototypes of the new bike’s components. As part of the development, WMG encouraged Pashley to move away from leather and steel and to try out plastic and aluminium, helping them to develop lightweight materials.

For the UK to fulfil its industrial promise, more manufacturers need to consider the benefits of working with the HVM Catapults. A company that is looking to translate an early-stage innovation into a market leading product will sit down to discuss their strategy with business development staff from an HVM Catapult Centre. The staff can advise on where to invest funds to get the best return and how to leverage technology for success.

The business advisers have a deep understanding of manufacturing and are skilled in translating academic research into real-world production. The HMV Catapult offers businesses world-class manufacturing equipment for testing new production processes along with the industrial expertise needed to turn nascent ideas and research into marketing leading successes.

They employ top engineers, manufacturing experts and industrial consultants, and put their knowledge at the service of businesses. There is a charge, although as the Catapults are non-profit making, they charge reasonable rates and companies can also tap into the grant funding also available through Innovate UK.

With exciting new technologies and processes coming on stream all the time, businesses need help integrating these into their production processes.

The fourth industrial revolution is transforming the way products and services are delivered. While the first industrial revolution boosted manufacturing with the steam engine, the second used electricity to create mass-production lines and the third introduced computers into the manufacturing process. Each stage has greatly improved productivity and raised living standards. Industry 4.0 is about to revolutionise production again.

The latest industrial revolution offers a suite of mainly digital technologies, which are set to make manufacturing more efficient, profitable and far more productive. These digital technologies are unleashing the power of big data. The growth of data from a wide variety of sources helps businesses predict demand more accurately and learn more about the precise needs of customers. Sensors in the production process emit data on the workings of machinery, which stands to make manufacturing far more accurate.

An example of this is improved quality-testing, which can be carried out on a continuous basis by offering data on the exact weights, measures used, and the state of components and ingredients.

Sensors will also enable advanced diagnostics of machinery, so producers will be able to see the first signs of something going wrong in the production line and take steps to remedy it. This will forestall glitches in the production process leading to less downtime and hiking productivity.

Meanwhile, automation is bringing a raft of new robotic machinery into the production process, taking over many of the mundane tasks previously carried out by humans. Workers are increasingly working alongside robots to increase efficiency.

Industry 4.0 techniques are already being used in the automotive and aerospace sectors. But there are concerns among some of the UK’s leading manufacturers that companies in their supply chain are failing to adopt fourth industrial revolution techniques, impairing their suitability to work with forward-looking manufacturers. This could leave the biggest producers looking overseas to find suppliers that have modernised production.

UK innovators need to grasp the opportunities offered by new technology and transform their production processes. The HVM Catapult offers the support that British inventors need to turn fresh ideas into gold.

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