On 11 September, POST launched its POSTnote on Advanced Manufacturing at a seminar co-hosted by the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group. Chris White, MP for Warwick and Leamington, chaired the event, at which parliamentarians, policy makers, engineers and academics debated the role of policy and technology in shaping the future of manufacturing in the UK.
Guests from a wide range of businesses, universities and other organisations turned out to see four expert speakers and a demonstration 3D printer. 3D printers build objects up layer-by-layer, guided by a computer model. This ‘additive’ process allows them to manufacture complete products with moving parts, such as the adjustable spanner ‘printed’ during the seminar.
Fergus Harradence, Deputy Director of Innovation Policy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)opened the discussion by outlining why BIS sees manufacturing as vital to the UK economy, such as the huge breadth and depth of skills it develops and its capacity for innovation. He identified a lack of integration between disparate parts of the sector as one of its main problems. Though progress is being made through initiatives like the new network of ‘Catapult’ centres, more needs to be done to bring universities and small and large businesses together.
Next was Clive Hickman, CEO of the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry; one of the new Catapult centres. Clive described the centre’s rapid progress since it opened in 2010, conducting numerous projects with both small and large businesses that attempt to bridge the ‘valley of death’ between basic research and commercial application. He gave some exciting examples, such as a small-scale robotic system that can assemble a variety of different cars, even cars designed by different companies, doing away with the need for a production line and expensive international freight. Though Clive presented many promising innovations from the Catapult centre, he also warned that there is still a severe skills shortage, particularly in jobs that require higher-level apprenticeships.
Richard Hague, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing turned the discussion towards technology and design, presenting a lively and comprehensive tour of additive manufacturing, the more general term for 3D printing. He described the many advantages of additive manufacturing, such as the improved design freedoms, the ability to personalise products, to make products lighter and to make any product anywhere, which may reduce the need for freight. This technology needs to be developed further before there is widespread uptake, so there are plenty of opportunities for the UK to make breakthroughs and claim intellectual property. However, Richard also emphasised the lack of skills, drawing particular attention to the recruitment of high quality PhD students.
Finally, Phil Goodier, CEO of Plaxica shared his experience leading a fledgling manufacturing company, which makes a new type of resilient, biodegradable bio-plastic. This plastic has a lower carbon footprint than traditional oil-based plastics, which is attractive to both eco-conscious Western markets and developing economies, where oil is treated as a valuable resource to conserve. Phil described the usefulness of ‘incubator’ facilities, which can allow a small company to develop products that require high levels of capital expenditure. He also praised some of the long-term venture capital that is available to small companies with good ideas. As with the previous speakers, Phil’s main concern was around skills. He highlighted the lack of talented engineers in their 30s and 40s who will be able to take on leadership roles in the near future, mainly due to the popularity of city banking jobs in the 1990s.
The Q&A session carried on the debate over skills and there was considerable enthusiasm for the idea of taking 3D printers into schools to excite younger students about careers in manufacturing (provided they don’t just get used once, then left in a cupboard). There seemed to be general agreement that the rebuilding of the British manufacturing sector is a work in progress and that any new policy initiatives for funding and skills need to be planned and implemented over the long term before results are seen.
The APMG has produced a video summary of the event.