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Hardtech sector can “lift the economy and boost skills”

Hardtech sector can “lift the economy and boost skills”

Two fifths of the output of UK manufacturing can be categorised as “hardtech” with the capability to invigorate the economy and contribute to the government’s “levelling up” agenda, a seminar in November will be told. Hardtech businesses combine a range of technological skills to design and make products, with manufacturing-related services often a big part of their activity.

While devising the ideas behind products is vital to what hardtech companies do, they may leave the manufacture of the items to other businesses under outsourcing arrngements, in which case they become categorised as “factory-less goods producers”, a growing part of the manufacturing landscape.

These points will be made by Peter Marsh, founder of Made Here Now, at an event on “Hardtech and High-Value Manufacturing” being organised by the Foundation for Science and Technology at the Royal Society in London on November 9.

Brandon medicalleeds hospital lighting production
Manufacturers with expertise in combining multiple technologies in a range of product areas offer high-quality jobs, the seminar will be be told. Photo by Brandon Medical

“Hardtech companies in general have high productivity and export ratios, are important employers of skilled people and spend more than most businesses on research and development,” Marsh will say. “Once the current UK political turmoil is settled, government ministers and civil servants should give these businesses greater attention. More recognition of the key role of hardtech - plus assistance where needed to specific firms through targeted support measures - should become a bigger part of government industrial policy.”

Other speakers at the seminar include Will Butler-Adams, chief executive of Brompton Bicycle, the UK’s biggest maker of two wheelers and a Made Here Now sponsor; Katherine Bennett, chief executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a government/industry research and development organisation; and Fred Perry, director of advanced manufacturing at the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

Made Here Now was set up to throw a spotlight on innovative parts of UK manufacturing as part of an effort to boost skills development and encourage more young people to seek careers in this sector.

Brandon medicalleeds hospital lighting production
Hardtech businesses in a range of sectors including plastic goods, chemicals and instruments have much to offer the government's levelling-up agenda. Photo by Brandon Medical

The conference will examine how hardtech companies work with the UK research base and contribute to strategies on innovation, skills development and levelling up – efforts to increase the wealth and well-being of the country’s less prosperous regions. Levelling up was a term introduced by former prime minister Boris Johnson, and remains an important part of official thinking, even though in recent months has slipped from attention.

The Foundation for Science and Technology is a charity, providing a platform for debating policy issues involved with science, research, technology or innovation. Its seminars bring together parliamentarians, civil servants, industrialists, researchers, learned societies and journalists.

High value manufacturing catapult assembly
With business investment in the UK having flagged in recent years, there is a pressing need for companies to increase spending on capital equipment and training. Photo by HVM Catapult

UK manufacturing sales came to about £400bn in 2021, of which just under half was exported. Of the total, 60 per cent consists of standard industrial products requiring a modest amount of technological acumen, and which are often sold mainly to domestic customers. Such items include much of UK food production – the biggest manufacturing sector, accounting for about 20 per cent of the total – as well as basic building products, textiles, household furniture and packaging.

Of remaining 40 per cent of manufacturing sales – all of which can be categorised as hardtech – about half includes the so-called “high-tech” industries such as electronics, biotech, telecoms and military equipment. “While the high-tech areas of the economy are generally widely recognised by government policymakers and tend to get special attention, the rest of the hardtech sector is often ignored when officials and ministers are considering the parts of industry that they regard as important,” Marsh will tell the conference.

High value manufacturing catapult assembly
Among the characteristics of hardtech companies is that they combine high productivity with high export ratios, both much needed when the economy is under pressure. Photo by HVM Catapult

“Within this important hardtech sector are many niche areas including parts of chemicals, industrial and scientific instruments, machines, metal and plastic goods and automotive. The employees of the relevant businesses must be adept at using multiple technologies, often blending several in creating the designs and making the final product”.

Marsh will add: “We should not ignore the factory-less goods producers - typically design-based businesses which know a lot about the intricacies of manufacturing but for many reasons choose to leave production to others, perhaps in low-cost countries, while owning the intellectual property behind the item in question. Once you take on board the FLGP concept, you understand that it is possible to be an excellent manufacturer, while not doing any manufacturing.”

High value manufacturing catapult work at advanced manufacturing research centre rotherham
Automation skills will be a big requirement for the manufacturers likely to succeed in the next few years. Photo by HVM Catapult

Key technologies that many hardtech businesses are good at include materials development, design engineering, high-level electronics, information technology and automation. “IT skills and using the internet – as in the interest in the “internet of things” – are vital many of these companies,” Marsh will say. “But they are rarely the main reason for a company’s ability to compete effectively on world markets. Often there is another technology – or set of technologies – which the company excels at but which often falls below the radar screens of government policymakers and other industrial thinkers.”

The event was originally organised for November 9 has been postponed until January 25. The event is being supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK’s leading body for bringing together expertise in engineering disciplines, and the ERA Foundation, a leading charity which supports technology advancement and is a Made Here Now sponsor. 

Listen to Peter Marsh talking about hardtech manufacturing and its role in boosting the economy in this podcast from the Foundation for Science and Technology.