There's been a lot of talk over the years about the terminal decline of Britain's manufacturing sector, and how we as a country don't make anything anymore. However, there's just one problem with that notion, says Dick Elsy.

It's not true.

Elsy is Chief Executive of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, created in 2011 to accelerate new manufacturing concepts from the research base into commercially successful realities via seven UK centres of technology excellence. “Actually, the UK is in the top 10 largest manufacturing nations in the world,” he points out. “The sector is responsible for around 3% of all global manufacturing output and 50% of all UK exports. It employs just shy of three million people.”

 

Benefits of investing in innovation

 

It’s fair to say that the UK's manufacturing sector needs to continue to invest in innovation if it's to deal with a challenging economic future and move further up the league table. That's not always easy because R&D can be a risky and expensive process. Nevertheless, it's vital for future prosperity, says Elsy.

“With the latest know-how and technology you'll be well-placed to offer the best products to customers in your supply chain or direct market; and you'll be infinitely better placed in terms of productivity,” he says. “It will help you win.”

Encouragingly, in the Industrial Strategy published last year, the government stressed its commitment to raising the level of UK R&D from 1.7% of GDP to a level closer to the OECD average of 2.4%. And that's going to have to involve British manufacturers because a staggering 68% of current R&D investment comes from the manufacturing sector.

 

Digital processes improve efficiency

 

Indeed, Elsy sees great opportunities for UK manufacturing in a number of areas in the years ahead, including, new materials and materials processing for things like the next generation of batteries for cars, manufacture of the next generation aircraft wings and aero propulsion, food and drink production — and, importantly, green tech, digital and automation technologies.

“Applying digital processes to your production line will increase your efficiency and productivity, improve the way you connect to your customer and control stock, and reduce energy consumption,” he says. “Robotics, meanwhile, can help you manage your production lines or, at the high end, work for you in the most hazardous environments.”

He remains optimistic that, despite worries about Brexit, the UK's manufacturing sector is uniquely placed to weather any gathering storms. “Creativity and invention is embedded deeply in the British DNA,” says Elsy. “And the quality of our research base — and the kind of support now available to manufacturers from organisations like ours to help harness ideas emerging from it — is second-to-none. This is a sector which has the potential to do well for many years to come.”