Advocates often exaggerate the speed of development and the impact of new technologies. Yet by 2035, those that are now emerging will have matured – and in some of them the UK is already strong. How can British manufacturers make sure they continue to keep up with the pace? Here are five areas in which British companies are establishing themselves among the leaders and where we can expect to see them make further strides over the coming decades.
Today’s car designers use room-sized, 3D computer simulations to test and improve products or production operations. The aim is to cut the cost of product development and to improve component and system quality enough to slow the trend toward more and bigger product recalls.
The carmaker Jaguar Land Rover is expert in virtual engineering and collaborates widely with universities and research institutes in this field, as do Bentley and BAE Systems. JLR also has an important link with Holovis, a small UK company that is a world leader in making virtual reality “caves” big enough to accommodate several people. These caves allow engineers to see the results of proposed design changes for objects ranging from engines to buildings.
JLR has gone even further. It has used its skills in virtual displays to bring 360 degree vision to drivers, using live video cameras outside the car to display images on the inside of the car’s roof pillars, making them appear transparent. Similarly, it hopes to enable car buyers to design a vehicle on a mobile device, then bring their saved design to a showroom so they can interact with life-size virtual versions of what they have created.
However the merits of virtual engineering go beyond cars and aerospace: they extend not just to other parts of manufacturing, but also to the simulation of high-performance computing and IT storage.
Just as Britain could spread the benefits of virtual engineering further than cars, so it could diffuse advanced materials outside the vibrant aerospace sector, where they often originate. In 2012, after all, Britain’s government highlighted materials as one of the eight “great technologies” it would support.
The hotter the blade of a jet’s turbine becomes, the more efficiently it works and the less carbon dioxide it generates. Through single-crystal super-alloys and thermal barrier coatings, engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce has done much to enable turbine blades to run hundreds of degrees hotter than their constituents would normally allow. At three of the 14 university technology centres it runs in the UK, Rolls-Royce researchers have begun examining how novel metal silicides could make for turbines capable of withstanding still higher temperatures. In other materials work, Rolls-Royce has also looked at how to stop oxygen making titanium brittle, in a development that could bring the metal’s combination of strength and low weight to a range of products, including not just aircraft, but also cars and trains.
In carbon-based materials, Britain’s strengths in graphene, first produced in Manchester University in 2004, also augur well. The government has put almost £100m into funding the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre and National Graphene Institute, both based in Manchester. Several UK companies, among them 2D Tech, Applied Graphene Materials and Cambridge Nanosystems, are trying to commercialise the new material.
In sensing devices, Britain may also be able to give Asian and US electronics manufacturers a run for their money over the next two decades.
In the fast-developing “internet of things” – networks of internet-connected devices – Cambridge-based ARM Holdings, which creates and licenses microchip designs, offers a platform for linking devices around homes, offices and “wearables”. In sensors, Ubisense, another Cambridge business, has created small gadgets that detect and communicate position, and can be used, for example, to track components inside car plants.
A much bigger company that has plenty of expertise in related areas is Spectris, which makes instruments for measuring, testing and control of industrial processes. Since 2008, the company has grown rapidly, and has acquired a British business that specialises in the analysis of nanomaterials. Another area of sensing where Britain shows potential is in biometrics – measuring people. Here, Human Recognition Systems, based in Liverpool, is a pioneer, helping airports identify people in transit, and firms identify workers entering construction sites or industrial plants.
In the place where medicine meets manufacturing, cheap, disposable and non-invasive plastic electronics devices may one day be able to detect diabetes from the chemicals they sense in a person’s breath. In another example, Renishaw, which specialises in a range of manufacturing technologies, has applied the insights it has gained there to make robots for precision neurosurgery. It has also built fast in-vitro diagnostic devices for clinical research into infectious disease.
On a grander scale, the government has named regenerative medicine, which deals in the engineering of cells and human tissue, as one of its eight “great” technologies. It has also earmarked about £200m to promote synthetic biology. Here biological mechanisms are designed to create products ranging from biologically-engineered yeast – a precursor for anti-malarial drugs – to new materials for protecting soldiers in chemical warfare. Such initiatives principally offer hope of increasing Britain’s existing strengths in pharmaceuticals manufacturing and research.
Food and drink
Food and drink adds more value to the British economy than any other sector of manufacturing: about £20bn a year. Moreover, a variety of product and process technologies look set to keep UK food and drink manufacturers in good shape. Take Allied Bakeries, the bakery arm of Associated British Foods. It has opened a Glasgow production line in which just 27 workers make 33,000 “thin rolls” an hour, with the products offering both pre-sliced convenience and low calories.
For more food and drink innovation, go to Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, where Campden BRI, a research institute, helps companies from AB World Foods (maker of Patak curries) through to Unilever. It is active in technologies such as high-pressure processing, which can make fried food less oily and meat more tender.
What the UK should do next
Britain’s government has drawn up policies on the automotive sector and the internet of things. It has a ministerial strategy group on bio-pharmaceuticals, though this appears not to have met for more than a year. On top of regenerative medicine and synthetic biology, it has also designated robots and autonomous systems as a favoured area. And it has established Catapult Centres to stimulate the development of high-value manufacturing, transport systems, satellites and cell therapies.
So far, so good. However, budgets are tight. Tax credits based on the government’s Patent Box, which will close to new entrants next year, will not prove enough to support high-tech manufacturing. And there is an even bigger problem than the scarcity of state funding. Britain’s government says it wants an “informed debate” about science and innovation, but it has not done enough to counter fears about technological innovation in areas such as synthetic biology. Based on what appears to be scant evidence, two Manchester social scientists recently raised concerns about the field – about the ethics of interfering with nature; potential environmental, health and safety risks, and also about “ownership and control, and effects on existing sectors and workforces”. Yet Britain has barely begun research in synthetic biology, let alone applied its benefits to manufacturing.
In Britain more than in most countries, fears about and protests against technological innovation emerge years before such innovation is implemented. UK governments of every political persuasion should stop tinkering with taxes and instead, much more excitingly, start a real public clarification of the need to take risks around the five technological areas outlined above.
The risks of Britain not taking advantage of tomorrow’s impressive manufacturing advances, in terms of the new jobs and wealth that would be lost, are extremely high – as are the potential gains that could come from exploiting these changes. Through data and debate, advocates of manufacturing progress must bring about a change in the cultural climate in Britain. That alone would do much to increase the budgets, the speed and, yes, the romance associated with new ways to make things.