Earlier this month, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR)
revealed that the United Kingdom’s economy has finally emerged from the throws of its double-dip recession.
However, the forecaster warned that this emergence is due in no small part to the positive impact of the London 2012 Olympics, and NIESR experts predict that future progress will be slow without individual boosts.
The High Value Manufacturing Catapult has a pretty aspirational goal. Over the next 30 years, we intend to push the percentage of manufacturing-related GDP back north of 20 per cent. This is a really ambitious target, but everybody associated with the Catapult is committed to turning it into a reality.
Clearly, the UK must find alternative means if it is to secure significant and sustained economic growth. One body committed to providing a pronounced but long-lasting boost to the UK’s fiscal situation is the Technology Strategy Board
. Its Catapult programme
aims to revitalise the economy by stimulating innovation and accelerating growth for the UK. The initiative consists of seven centres specialising in High Value Manufacturing, Cell Therapy, Offshore Renewable Energy, Connected Digital Economy, Satellite Applications, Transport Systems and Future Cities respectively.
The High Value Manufacturing Catapult
was opened in October 2011. This particular Catapult comprises seven centres working in collaboration to accelerate the commercialisation of new and emerging manufacturing technologies, thus providing a welcome boost to the UK’s manufacturing sector.
In an interview with ScienceOmega.com
, Will Barton, Head of Manufacturing at the Technology Strategy Board, offered his perspective of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult on its first birthday…
What, in your opinion, were some of the United Kingdom’s key strengths in terms of high value manufacturing prior to the establishment of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult?
I think that the answer to that question is probably the same now as it was a year ago. The UK places second in the world in terms of aerospace. Two of the world’s top six pharmaceutical companies are based here and we conduct a lot of pharmaceutical manufacturing as a result. The resurgence of the automotive industry over the last five years has also been a big headline as far as we are concerned. Here are three great examples of industries underpinned by successful innovation, and each of these areas comes under the umbrella of high value manufacturing.
So why did we need a High Value Manufacturing Catapult? How has this centre helped the UK to build upon its existing strengths?
UK manufacturing has declined from a level of over 25 per cent of the country’s GDP during its heyday, to approximately 10 per cent as it stands currently. Even before the government proposed a rebalancing of the economy in favour of manufacturing, I think we all appreciated that this needed to happen. If our manufacturing base had continued to decline at the same rate, the UK would have had difficulty creating wealth and living standards would have been impacted. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult has a pretty aspirational goal. Over the next 30 years, we intend to push the percentage of manufacturing-related GDP back north of 20 per cent. This is a really ambitious target, but everybody associated with the Catapult is committed to turning it into a reality. We intend to have a huge impact.
Do you envisage that the Catapult will remain in place for the entirety of this period?
The Catapult exists to help companies – both small and large – to commercialise the technologies that are coming out of our great universities and their research laboratories, and to manufacture these technologies right here in the UK. Our country is home to some of the best universities on the planet so there will always be great new technologies to work with. We want to try to commercialise more of these technologies in the UK than have been captured here in the past. We need to constantly work to bridge this gap; at the Technology Strategy Board, we call it ‘concept to commercialisation’. Catapult centres are all about taking technologies from the test bed and getting them ready for commercial production. If, over the next five years or so, Catapults can demonstrate that they are good at fulfilling this role, why wouldn’t we continue to invest in them?
How did you decide upon the seven partners that comprise the High Value Manufacturing Catapult?
We took the usual, time-honoured Technology Strategy Board approach: we ran a competition. We asked consortia to come together and bid to form this Catapult, and we stipulated that bids should cover multiple manufacturing sectors. We didn’t want aerospace bids or automotive bids. We wanted multi-sector bids that would allow us to exploit the synergies between different areas of manufacturing.
And how do the contrasting competencies of these partners contribute to the success of the Catapult centre?
We have a broad spread of competencies across our seven partners. A lot of money has been invested; around £350m worth of assets are split between cutting-edge equipment and the skills needed to operate this equipment. As the year has progressed, we have discovered more and more synergies between these competencies and we have already identified a number of cross-centre opportunities. This enabled different centres to bring together different skills and approaches to technology development, making the result all the more powerful for UK plc.
So in a sense, the partners are coming together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts…
Absolutely. It’s all about the synergy. There are still gaps though. When we established the Catapult, we took a step back to consider how high value manufacturing is likely to develop during the next 15 to 20 years. What challenges and opportunities is this sector going to tee up? Which of these challenges and opportunities will the UK be best placed to tackle?
The Technology Strategy Board worked in conjunction with the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM)
to conduct a study that would answer these questions. Our investigation identified 22 national competencies. A national competency is defined as a cluster of capabilities which involves multiple sectors. By investing in these particular areas, UK plc can really excel in manufacturing into the future.
We then looked at the seven partners and found that they already embodied 11 of the 22 national competencies that had been identified. This was an excellent start. It told us that we were investing in areas that would take the UK forward. Moreover, this is a framework which allows flexibility. If somebody comes along and encourages us to invest in a new piece of equipment, we can check to see whether or not this investment will reinforce one of the competencies. If it will, we have a good argument for investment.
How would you appraise the High Value Manufacturing Catapult on its first birthday?
I think that in many respects, it has had an excellent first year. When we first started, partners such as the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC)
, the National Composites Centre (NCC)
and the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (Nuclear AMRC)
were little more than open workshops. They had a lot of gaps awaiting new equipment and there wasn’t too much work going on. These are now up and running and our headcount across the High Value Manufacturing Catapult has grown to approximately 700. Even more importantly, these three newest centres alone have gained almost 100 new industrial clients. I see this as a great endorsement from industry.
The individual centres and the Catapult as a whole have become really strong platforms for collaborative R&D. This is the arena in which small and large companies join together. Indeed, the large companies often turn out to be the route to market for SMEs. Collaborative R&D often enables companies to bring a product to market more effectively. This is very important to us. In its first year, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult has had over 1000 SME engagements.
Earlier in our conversation, I mentioned cross-centre working. One of the great ways to ensure that the seven individual partners become more integrated is to encourage cross-centre projects. We have identified several projects that are of interest to multiple centres and five or six of these projects are running right now.
Finally, we have the right people. In Bob Gilbert, we have an excellent Chairman and we have a fully-populated supervisory board consisting of very prominent figures from industry and academia. We also announced Dick Elsy as the Catapult’s full-time CEO earlier this year. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult has an enthused team ready to take the centre forward.
What will be the Catapult’s main priorities over the coming years?
I think that the first issue that we need to address is that of visibility. Whilst we have had over 1000 SME engagements during our first year, there are many more to be had. Achieving a higher level of visibility will be really important to our success. Now that we have a team capable of absorbing new interest, the time has come to get out there and make things happen.
Secondly, we must continue to exploit the synergies that exist between our centres. Some of the most significant industry breakthroughs from the last 30 years have taken place at the interfaces between technologies. There are probably some areas in which we can help industry by combining the technologies being developed at different centres. Continued integration is a key priority for us.
Thirdly, we need to build upon our competency base by investing in, and implementing additional competencies. Scientific development precipitates new demands from industry and we need to work to accommodate these demands.
When we started, we addressed 11 of the 22 national competencies that were identified by the IfM report
. If the resources were available today, we would help many more industries. However, we have a limited amount of money and we don’t want to spread it too thinly. As we move forward, we will continue to address the importance of these competencies and we have to find ways to bring new ones into the fold. We are well placed to do this as we already know what these competencies are. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult will prioritise the most important demands. If we identify an area in which momentum is building and from which the UK economy can benefit, we will do our best to find support for investment in that area.