Britain’s emergence from the coronavirus crisis could herald a new era of British manufacturing and innovation.
Addressing members of Mersey Maritime at one of the organisation’s virtual Face-2-Face networking events, Clive Hickman, chief executive of the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), called for a renewed focus on the UK’s knowledge economy.
Based in Liverpool and the Midlands, the MTC is an independent research and technology resource with the brief of bridging the gap between academia and industry – often referred to as the ‘valley of death’. It was established in Coventry in 2010 and now has a team of 34 people at Liverpool Science Park.
Mr Hickman talked about how manufacturers and innovators had demonstrated their value during the COVID-19 crisis by turning their skills to develop vital equipment for NHS staff on the frontline of fighting the virus.
He said this effort could provide a platform for a new era of British manufacturing and innovation. He explained: “From the mid-1980s manufacturing was forgotten about. We were happy to let it be done overseas. But Germany has continued to manufacture, so why can’t we?
“What has always frustrated me is that despite us having the best research in the world at our universities, coming up with great products and processes, so many things end up being made abroad. Flat screen TVs is my favourite example of that.
“We need to invest in the capacity to make things here in the UK. We need to upskill our workforce so they can quickly adapt to what is needed. Training will be a big part of the work we do in Liverpool in the future.”
Mr Hickman also talked of the need for automation in industry, an area in which he felt the UK lagged behind other parts of the world. And he took issue with the notion that increased automation will lead to higher unemployment, pointing out that it typically increases productivity and leads to more jobs..
“We need to embrace automation much more than we have so far,” he explained. “We see a lot of automation in the automotive sector, but not so much elsewhere. For example, much of our food supply industry is dominated by people and there is not as much technology as there could be. Technology creates jobs, not the reverse.”
He said that during the COVID-19 epidemic and particularly during the lockdown, the MTC has faced the same challenges as businesses across the UK in maintaining cashflow and ensuring they have a viable business at the other end of the crisis, as well as ensuring the welfare of its employees.
He added: “Half of our income comes from government grants, which we believe are secure. We are focused on winning the industrial orders that make up the other 50% of our income. We have furloughed some employees but are topping up the furlough to ensure people still get their usual salaries.
“We have also cancelled recruitment for the foreseeable future, cancelled all capital expenditure and converted capital grant to revenue, and we have secured a £4m advance on our Catapult grant.”
Mr Hickman went into detail about multiple partnerships with industry and the NHS during the crisis to increase the supply of vital personal protection equipment (PPE) for health and key workers. There have been supply chain projects for intubation shields, ventilators, face shields, ear savers, water dispensers, ambulance sanitisation and hand sanitisers.
MTC projects included developing intubation shields for Barts Hospital Trust, was part of a consortium developing new ventilators, 3D printed more than 200 face shields and passed them to Jaguar Land Rover for onward supply, and helped Johnson & Johnson convert one of their fragrance production lines to make hand sanitisers.
The urgency of the COVID-19 crisis has inspired academics and industry to innovate quickly and Mr Hickman hopes this effort will see the knowledge economy given a much higher priority as we move out of the crisis phase and into recovery. He said the ingenuity that exists in our universities is key to the UK’s future growth.
He added: “The work that is done at our universities is fantastic and we need to learn from them. In other parts of the world, universities drive the economy. But, here in the UK, we don’t convert enough of our research into innovation. Hopefully, now, that will change.”