Collaborative success for UK manufacturing

Innovation in UK high-value manufacturing is on the rise, says Catapult

Risky, costly and launched in a recession, the stakes could not have been higher for the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult when it was set up in 2011 to help create a flourishing future for UK high-value manufacturing. Now, two-and-a-half years on, its success is proving that risky enterprises can produce big rewards when smart people pool their resources.

For Britain, fighting a trade deficit in a globalised world and aiming for an ambitious doubling of exports to £1 trillion by 2020, it is critically important to have an economy which “makes things” again, and successfully translates its great ideas (of which it has many) into commercial success (of which it needs more). We are an innovative nation, but we’ve not been great at embedding our inventions as long-term value in manufacturing.

The HVM Catapult, through its seven centres across the UK, has already helped thousands of companies close the gap between early innovation and full-scale production.

As with any multi-partner collaboration, this involves risk and not every project has worked. But the Catapult has surpassed all its output targets and has rooted itself as the organisation which can bridge that gap.

The HVM Catapult formula is based on a business offer that covers the full range of manufacturing capabilities, providing access to advanced equipment that is normally out of reach for small and even big businesses.

The Advanced Forming Research Centre in Strathclyde, for example, has recently acquired the largest super-plastic forming press of any European research environment. And the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry houses one of the world’s most powerful commercial lasers. This cutting-edge equipment is combined with extensive manufacturing-process knowhow, the brainpower of experienced scientists and engineers, and importantly, R&D input from small and medium-sized businesses as well as large companies.

The HVM Catapult, through its seven centres across the UK, has already helped thousands of companies close the gap between early innovation and full-scale production

The crucial point is that partners share knowledge and work to a common goal in an example of effective collaboration hitherto unseen in Britain.

Engineering group GKN Aerospace, for example, works with two HVM Catapult centres – the National Composite Centre in Bristol and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham – on the STeM programme, aimed at cutting assembly times for high-quality aircraft wing structures by 30 per cent compared to what’s possible today.

Rich Oldfield, technical director at GKN Aerospace, says: “We face twin challenges to improve airframe performance and to achieve far higher aircraft production rates than have been achieved until now. Having access to the resources of the HVM Catapult centres is allowing us to work alongside our partners to progress the technologies and processes that are critical to achieving our goals.” It’s one example of several HVM Catapult projects that involve two or more centres, combining the strengths of each as efficiently as possible.

When Rolls-Royce launched the plans for their new high-technology disc factory in Washington, near Sunderland, they targeted a substantial improvement in production capacity and productivity through advanced machining and integration of manufacturing processes. The company’s engineers worked closely with staff at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre to develop the methods and techniques required to deliver this ambitious improvement programme. This led to substantial efficiency savings, and underpinned the commitment and launch of the new Rolls-Royce disc factory.

Many centres are already expanding their offer to respond to industrial demand. The new Battery Facility at WMG in Coventry, for example, will create a one-stop shop for the development of new battery chemistries from concept to fully proven batteries for propulsion of electric and hybrid vehicles.

SMES AND KEEPING THE FUNDING BALANCE

The big businesses working with the HVM Catapult, such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing, GKN and JLR, have big R&D budgets, but is the HVM Catapult reaching small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as intended?

In 2013, the HVM Catapult worked with more than 1,700 SMEs, exceeding its target by over 30 per cent; companies such as Applied Graphene Materials, a University of Durham spin-out that manufactures the revolutionary one-atom-thick and extremely strong material graphene.

Chief executive John Mabbitt explains the benefits of working at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) in Wilton, Teesside. “As a startup company working on groundbreaking materials, setting up our manufacturing and business processes with CPI helped us realise our goals in a much shorter timescale and with lower risk.”

Mr Mabbitt says his association with the Catapult helped secure the company’s AIM listing. “We were probably deemed a lower level of risk because there was a greater level of confidence in the credibility of it [CPI] being a Catapult centre. It’s like a one-stop shop for the process industry.”

Other SMEs who have been assisted in product development by the Catapult include surface processing business Sandwell UK and electronics manufacturer Assembled Electronics Solutions, both working with MTC, and precision engineering firms participating in the Fit4Nuclear programme at the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing and Research Centre in Rotherham.

The HVM Catapult receives core funding from government through the Technology Strategy Board, which must be matched with collaborative R&D and business income. This so-called “one third-one third-one third” model is based on that of the successful Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. The composition is crucial to the success of the Catapult, says HVM Catapult chief executive Dick Elsy.

“Demand and income from business exceeds expectation, and as a consequence, government core funding now falls below the original 33 per cent target,” says Mr Elsy. “We are pressing for this to be rebalanced. The government’s contribution is critical to the success of the programme. It helps us work with smaller businesses, it helps us undertake the most groundbreaking work, which inherently has most risk associated with it, and it sends a major message to business that UK government fully backs high-end manufacturing in this country.”

Innovation in high-value manufacturing in the UK is on the increase and there is evidence that the High Value Manufacturing Catapult is working effectively. This is a great example of government and industry working together to build long-term value for the UK.