Small inventions produce world-beating giants

Will Stirling surveys the industrial landscape and discovers British firms are bursting with new ideas

British businesses are innovating everywhere. At the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham, a three-year project is underway to perfect eight-metre deep hole drilling in a one-touch process. This fiendishly difficult process will transform the manufacture of rods used in nuclear reactors. Many countries want this process, but no one has mastered it.

Healthcare is a strong sector for UK exports. JRI Products in Sheffield has carved a powerful niche in the global orthopaedics market dominated by two or three big multinationals, by the clever use of strong intellectual property, careful collaboration with a network of UK universities and being eligible for several pots of funding. “Being small, it turned out, was not a barrier,” says innovation manager Dr Edward Draper.

Some of this innovation is impossibly small to see. P2i in Oxfordshire produces a nano-scale protective coating, a special pulsed ionized gas, created within a vacuum chamber, based on PhD research carried out by co-founder Stephen Coulson in the late-1990s. The coating is now used by Motorola, Timberland and Hi-Tec to waterproof and stain-proof their products. New markets include hearing aids, laptops, luxury clothing – all billion-dollar markets.

The British are good innovators, but in the past we have often been guilty of losing these good ideas during the commercialisation phase. The Technology Strategy Board (TSB), an agency under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was established in 2007 to convert good ideas into GDP growth. In September 2011, a TSB study put the gross value added (GVA) to the economy generated by its projects at £6.71 per £1 of government funding.

The TSB runs a string of funding competitions to help get innovation to market, from low-carbon vehicles to energy-harvesting devices. With help from Dr Hermann Hauser, the polymath behind plastic electronics maker Plastic Logic, it helped to deliver the UK’s Catapult centres, virtual and physical research centres for making high-technology innovation commercially viable.

The British are good innovators, but have often lost good ideas during the commercialisation phase

Some UK manufacturers are using innovation to transform entire business models. Poor management meant Sheffield Forgemasters International faced ruin in 2005. Today, this profitable £270-million steel company has just launched its seventh spin-off company. But RD26 sells data, not steel; carefully calculated “recipes” for manufacturing complex steel components – think offshore oil and submarines. These simulations omit the need to make prototype parts, saving huge costs for both customer and steelmaker.

“Customers now want intelligent thinking in the way things are made,” says chief executive Graham Honeyman. “After Fukushima [nuclear power station accident], people want components of minimal risk and they will pay more for higher integrity.”

CASE STUDY

The final frontier…

e2v, the one-time English Electric Valve Company, manufactures semiconductors, radio frequency devices and image sensors for many industrial markets. End-customers for its image sensors include the European Space Agency and NASA. It has provided technology for the Mars rover, Curiosity, to analyse rock samples and a one billion pixel camera was recently delivered for the GAIA telescope to find new planets.

“These customers need the highest integrity of data, at the highest signal level, with the lowest noise on that signal,” says Jon Kemp, marketing and applications manager for space imaging at e2v in Chelmsford. “You can see twice as many photons on this sensor as comparable systems.”

e2v’s space imaging division has grown 15 per cent in the last two years and Mr Kemp says the global space market is growing. Now e2v’s life sciences division is using technology perfected in its space division to improve higher-volume imaging devices used in medical applications, such as operating theatres.