Best place in the world for manufacturing innovation

An evermore stratified global marketplace will provide opportunities for small, innovative UK companies to play a greater role in high-value manufacturing, says Will Barton

The UK manufacturing sector can be rightly proud of its record of innovation. No nation’s industrial history is so richly peppered with as many globally significant breakthroughs. In the 21st century, the UK’s innovative heritage continues to be built, with continued breakthroughs, in graphene, composite materials, quantum computing and additive manufacturing – or 3D printing as it is commonly called – to name a few.

Those game-changing, breakthrough innovations tend to receive plenty of column inches and rightfully so. They exemplify the incredible ingenuity of both the UK’s world-leading research base and its outstanding manufacturing capabilities.

Less attractive, but at least as important, are those innovations that don’t result in new products themselves, yet have the potential to turn a breakthrough discovery into a profitable market proposition. Process innovation or developing new production methods to allow for more cost-effective, flexible or accurate manufacturing, is the critical other half of our manufacturing success.

The process improvement side of manufacturing innovation will be evermore crucial in the future as global markets are increasingly served by distributed manufacturing. Not just in the sense of having production plants in places that allow a particular marketplace to be better served, but in terms of having plants which, in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, specialise in the production of smaller quantities of a wider range of drugs, in line with the health challenges posed by territory, genealogy and other factors.

This approach of supporting an increasingly stratified global market with evermore specifically targeted and prescribed products is already gathering pace in the pharmaceutical industry and other manufacturing sectors, such as the automobile industry.

Companies developing emerging technologies are increasingly taking advantage of what is now a broad and varied suite of government-sponsored support for business-led innovation

So our challenge is to support UK manufacturers to develop processes and technologies, which allow them to achieve that requirement for smaller volume manufacturing, while defying economies of scale. The UK is already a world leader in some of the technologies that will allow this to happen, in particular though expertise in additive manufacturing, and process intensification in the chemical industry.

The UK is also well positioned to take advantage of the rapidly developing industrial biotechnology sector, predicted to grow from its current £2-billion value to around £12 billion by 2025. With the potential to produce greener, less energy intensively produced biopolymers, for use in a wide range of products from bathroom suites to turbine blades, industrial biotechnology looks to be a game-changing technology of the future.

This promises excellent opportunities for smaller, innovative UK manufacturers who don’t enjoy the sheer size and associated economies of scale of some of the UK’s larger manufacturing concerns, active across multiple global territories, but who are able to meet the need for ever-finer and more bespoke product formulations.

As the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board de-risks early-stage investment by these companies through an extensive range of themed grant-funding calls, our network of catapult centres, which support companies to develop early-stage technologies through to commercial viability, alongside a number of imaginative mechanisms linking innovators to the UK’s world-leading research base.

Our high-value manufacturing strategy has been developed on the basis of a far-sighted look at how the sector will develop over the next 20 years, the challenges and opportunities those developments will present and which of these challenges the UK’s manufacturing sector could be well placed to meet if we did the right strategic calls.

We have identified 22 national manufacturing competencies that, if effectively supported and developed, would place the UK well to exploit the chosen challenges and opportunities. Among these competencies are the UK’s particular strengths in additive manufacturing and formulation technologies.

The UK remains perhaps the best place in the world for manufacturers to innovate. A world-leading research base, an extensive range of business-led, government-sponsored support for innovation and a developing range of state-of-the-art Catapult centres around the country, enables big and small companies alike to develop their manufacturing capability. We can look forward, with confidence, to shaping the next stage of the UK’s rich and varied history.

Will Barton is head of manufacturing at the Technology Strategy Board, the UK’s innovation agency.