How Rishi Sunak's Whitehall revamp can turbocharge UK manufacturing
The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield | Credit: Adobe
The Prime Minister's Whitehall shake-up is a key step forward in making the UK a science superpower.
The shake-up of Whitehall departments, including the creation of the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), is arguably the best news the advanced manufacturing sector has received in some time.
The government says DSIT “will build on our strong foundations of world-class research, a thriving technology scene and global networks of collaboration”. The department will “direct record levels of research and development”, which should be an absolute boon to British industry.
During his first Conservative Party leadership campaign last year, Rishi Sunak pledged to make the UK “a science superpower” if he were to become prime minister. Barely three months after getting the keys to 10 Downing Street and he is starting to make good on that promise by inviting science to the top table of government.
The rejig also means that policy areas are much more streamlined and focused – note that energy and business are no longer blurred in a single department. International trade now sits with business, a much more natural bedfellow.
The High Value Manufacturing Catapult (‘HVM Catapult’) bridges the gap between academia and business through seven world class research centres. Thousands of the world’s greatest minds help commercialise British industry’s best ideas, from sustainable safety razors to processes that create synthetic DNA.
We believe that this Whitehall shake-up must make sure that government can better focus on four core areas to help transform the UK into a top five manufacturing economy by the end of the decade. I will delve into these priorities in more detail across a series of Politics Home articles over the coming months, but I have briefly outlined them below.
If the new departments concentrate their resources and energies, then we can unleash the potential of the industry to address its most significant areas of need. We call these our strategic imperatives. They are enabling net zero and sustainability, supply chain transformation and resilience, digitalisation of the lifecycle of products and critical national infrastructure and capability delivery.
More than 350,000 people have been taught or trained in programmes supported by the HVM Catapult. For example, our Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre teamed up with Rolls-Royce last year to launch a training centre in Derby, which will develop the expertise needed for the UK’s submarines programme.
Yet industry still faces a skills crisis. To pick but one example, the demand for online transformation of our manufacturing industries is outstripping the number of engineers with digital skills. DSIT can help address these shortfalls by supporting targeted training programmes.
To meet the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050, manufacturing alone needs to halve its emissions by the start of the next decade. By reaching that ambition, the UK would become a greenshoring destination of choice. The world’s biggest manufacturers will want to use our efficient supply chains, helping to reduce their carbon footprint.
We want to work with DSIT to create a single, easily understood carbon accounting standard. At present, these standards differ between companies and sectors, meaning we cannot properly measure emissions reductions. If we can get better data, the UK can prove this is the country with the most environmentally-friendly supply chains.
SMEs are often referred to as “the backbone of the economy” and for good reason. There are 5.6m businesses who employ up to 49 people in the UK and they include some of our most able entrepreneurs. Yet the Covid pandemic has really hurt smaller firms, with the bulk of last year’s 22,000 insolvencies likely to have been SMEs. Tens of thousands are also thought to have closed their doors before going to the wall.
HVM Catapult brings bigger and smaller companies together, so that there is a mix of financial muscle and intellectual nimbleness. We worked on 2,677 collaborations in 2021/22 alone, with more than half of the SMEs involved introducing a new product or service as a result. We want to work with DSIT to maximise the potential of these fabulous businesses.
The potential of hydrogen is increasingly understood across government, academia and business. As an abundant gas, there is little doubt hydrogen will be crucial to both our energy needs and climate change goals. HVM Catapult is part of the Hydrogen Innovation Initiative, which will create a roadmap for the industry, and we are working on the use of the gas in flight. Our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre has built a £600,000 Hydrogen Electric Propulsion Systems testbed, supporting the development of fuel cell assembly for various transport industries.
Hydrogen might be everywhere, but that also means the UK has many rivals in the race to forge a comparative advantage in this field. Ministers and officials will need to work with the likes of HVM Catapult to come up with a detailed plan to stay ahead of the pack.
The High Value Manufacturing Centre comprises seven centres of research and innovation:
- National Manufacturing Institute Scotland - University of Strathclyde and other partners
- Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre – University of Sheffield
- CPI – Redcar, Sedgefield and Darlington
- Manufacturing Technology Centre – near Coventry
- National Composites Centre – at Bristol and Bath Science Park
- Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre – University of Sheffield
- WMG – University of Warwick
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