Transforming manufacturing capability and competitiveness through collaboration

Transforming manufacturing capability and competitiveness through collaboration
Published: 25 October 2021

Berwick Partners were delighted to host our latest Manufacturing Leadership Online Forum with Margot James, Executive Chair of WMG, University of Warwick. WMG is an academic department at the University of Warwick and one of the UK’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres. It is a leading international role model for successful collaboration between academia and the public and private sectors. Their mission is to create a better tomorrow through innovation and learning today, helping improve the competitiveness of organisations through value adding research, new technologies and industry relevant skills.

Margot has had a wide-ranging career which has spanned both working in business and for the UK Government, having founded her own business and been a senior manager in a global firm before being elected the Conservative MP for Stourbridge in May 2010. In both arenas Margot has demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and championed the need to expand opportunities for diverse groups of young people. In Government, Margot served as Minister of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with responsibility for Digital, Telecoms and the Creative Industries, piloting the Data Protection Bill through Parliament, incorporating GDPR into UK law. Previously she served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, with responsibility for small businesses, consumers and corporate governance, including labour markets.

Margot joined us to discuss the topic, ‘sustainable, smart and skilled: how collaboration between industry and academia can transform manufacturing capability and competitiveness’. The theme was to explore the ability, through partnerships and innovation, to translate good ideas into tangible technology that benefits everyone particularly with regard to our use of resources and future sustainability.

Research collaboration with industry is vital and drives the development of new technologies, never more evidenced than by the rapid production of effective COVID vaccines in the last year. This represented a combination of academic and industrial partnering partly funded by Government. This collaboration can be a brilliant model, if you look internationally at how Stanford University continues to be an enduring partner to Silicon Valley, and the success of the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany.

We don’t do this collaboration as well or as often, but the UK is getting better. The High Value Manufacturing Catapults have been a great success in driving activity, working at the crossroads between technology, creative industries, academia, government and manufacturing. WMG is focused on the power of innovation to meet the challenges that we now face as a society, particularly reducing emissions. Immersive technologies, electrification, battery development and light-weighting are all examples of arenas where innovation is being supported.

Britain should be fostering more activity. The Wilson review of collaboration between universities and business found that R&D in the UK was concentrated in relatively few large companies. Nearly a decade on support for SMEs continues to lag and it is vital that this community is better supported. A UK innovation survey undertaken in 2019 found that only 40% of businesses saw themselves as innovators, leaving much work to be done to help SMEs be creative. There also needs to be better understanding of how Academia can be an additional source of support.

Collaboration is built on relationships and WMG have seen a great need for help with digitising processes and automation, best evidenced by the Made Smarter initiative which has been a critical enabler for this activity. There is increasing support, both in terms of expertise and finances, to support accelerated digital transformation.

Where financial support is offered to start-ups, it is critical that investors take smaller stakes to ensure scalable ideas aren’t killed off before they even get off the ground. This cultural change would help to enable the creation of more large tech businesses in the UK. The Catapult network recently produced an excellent report on how to support collaboration by having simpler rules for funding competitions with no fixed level of business contribution, allowing companies to keep their IP.

Innovation doesn't happen in a vacuum and skills and infrastructure policies will have a direct impact on the willingness of business to invest in future innovation. We need better skilled worker capability in this country, particularly now we don't have an open market across Europe for workers. Re-training is going to be critical, for example, the Faraday Institute estimate that 75,000 expert technicians are going to be needed in electrical vehicle maintenance alone. There can be a significant time lag due to the pace of technological advances but the Lotus technical centre on the Warwick University campus is a great example of how the catapults can work with businesses to support their skills requirements.

The WMG has a significant proportion of academic staff who have spent time in industry. This should be a two-way street. Universities are part of local communities, and they should be active within the Chambers of Commerce and LEPs. The more of this that happens, the more cross fertilisation there is to apply to innovation: knowledge co-creation rather than knowledge transfer. SMEs are time poor, but we also need to encourage activity between them and their local University or FE College.

The Government commitment that Britain should spend at least 2.4% of its GDP on R&D would only bring us to the lower echelons of the global average but at least this is an improvement. The battery industry is a good example where Government investment is critical. It is not realistic that the transition to electric vehicle manufacturer is all going to be financed by industry. If we don't manufacture batteries in this country we won't manufacture cars in this country beyond the next ten years, proximity to battery manufacturing is going to be vital.

Future Mobility has been a core focus of research at WMG, looking at the testing and use of autonomous vehicles. Through a close relationship with Coventry City Council and the Combined Authority there is also 30 miles of local roads which are approved for testing novel transportation solutions. 5G connectivity is also key and the Midlands will benefit from an enabling spine running from Wolverhampton to Coventry.

Many thanks to Margot for her insights into the importance of partnerships and innovation to lead organisations into the future.

David Thomas is a Partner at Berwick Partners, focused on supporting organisations with key leadership appointments within the manufacturing space.

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