The Department for Business and Trade published its Advanced Manufacturing Plan in November – a document that could be a watershed moment for UK manufacturing. Andrew Borland, Chief Innovation Officer at the VEC, University of Liverpool takes a closer look at what this could mean for UK manufacturers.
The 47-page Advanced Manufacturing Plan sets out the government’s commitment to the long-term success of UK manufacturing and presents a well-researched and coherent assessment of the sector – its strengths, opportunities and challenges from the eyes of our policymakers.
But are the policies they set out in the plan the right ones for the sector? Are our policymakers and leaders bold enough in their ambition? And are we forgetting about critical corners of our manufacturing industry?
The Secretary of State’s foreword remarks set the tone for the plan, paying tribute to the UK’s manufacturing heritage – from the steam train right through to the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine.
It’s easy to forget about the manufacturing triumphs we’ve had as a nation over the centuries, but we have one of the most successful industrial foundations to build upon of almost any country globally.
Indeed, the plan does look to capitalise on that, drawing attention to the 12 new investment zones across the UK, with five specifically focused on advanced manufacturing, which will no doubt deliver significant returns for their local economies and beyond.
More interesting in the plan, however, is the government’s intention to lean upon the private sector to supercharge our manufacturing growth, citing that for every £1 of government investment, it will leverage £5 of additional private sector investment.
This is all hugely positive – with the correct support and funding, the private sector should always be working in collaboration with the government to boost industries and support wider economic growth.
The plan also outlines what the state sees as its role and priorities for the sector, including funding research, development and innovation programmes; safeguarding international corporations, supply chains and minimising barriers to trade; and reducing cost and obstacles to competitiveness to attract inward investment.
What’s interesting about these three key priorities and the Advanced Manufacturing Planmore broadly, is it is not an industrial strategy. And, to be fair, it doesn’t purport to be. The three key priorities the government has laid out mostly apply to itself. But it begs the question of whether the Department for Business and Trade has missed an opportunity with this plan to create a strategy for the sector – a considered blueprint outlining the government’s commitment to UK manufacturing.
Additionally, the plan puts a lot of emphasis on renewables and digital transformation activities, and ensuring the country leads in developing and deploying clean and digital manufacturing technologies.
Pivoting to renewable technologies and increasing digitisation are both important objectives the government has set itself in the plan, but are there emerging sectors within the manufacturing space that we are forgetting about, that could ensure we remain competitive on a global stage?
A surprisingly reserved plan
In the US, its government – first under the Trump administration and now more so under Biden – is actively promoting interventionist industrial policy to deliver the “reindustrialisation” of the US, as well as the green industrial revolution.
Meanwhile, closer to home, the EU is working towards boosting Europe’s industrial base, harmonising regulation and aiming to ensure the bloc can supply 40% of its demand for renewables by 2030. That could be everything from solar, wind and heat pump power generation to batteries, fuel cells or carbon capture storage.
Britain’s manufacturing legacy is unrivalled, and it’s vital we show the ambition and confidence to build on that. Since being the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, generation after generation of manufacturing leaders and their businesses have evolved and innovated dramatically. They have adapted to technological, social and demographic changes, as well as stepping up to moments of crises from world wars to global pandemics.
Yes, the country’s economy is long past its zenith, but our manufacturing landscape remains vibrant, adaptable and resilient – particularly among our emerging sectors and SMEs.
Growth from the bottom up
The UK’s SME manufacturers have endured particular and exceptional hardship over the last few years, from Brexit uncertainty and pandemic chaos to staggering increases in inflation. As such, it has become too easy for policy pessimists to now see the manufacturing sector’s small businesses as beaten, exhausted and in decline. But they’re wrong.
These challenges of the last few years have transformed the SME sector, by necessity, into leaner, more efficient and precision-managed businesses than they have probably ever been. We should question tactical policy changes that don’t seek to support or scale innovative businesses pivoting into or being seeded in new high growth potential sub-sectors of manufacturing. Yes, we should safeguard and adapt for mature industries like automotive, food and aerospace, but we should also recognise that the long-term rewards they offer may be more conservative compared to the nascent sectors coming through.
Of course, industries like aerospace and automotive will always be appealing because they have critical mass, and the roadmaps for their innovation are chartered and more certain, at least for those at the top of the supply chain. The downside, however, is our global competitors are on the same path, making it difficult for UK-based businesses in these spaces to move up the value chain.
Much of the risk and uncertainty of transitioning to new demand will therefore be borne by our exciting SMEs in emerging industries. With the right mix of investment, policy and people – and a focus on the agile, forward-thinking and determined SMEs, we could deliver a global competitive advantage once again. However, we are missing an opportunity if we don’t legislate for SMEs that are pivoting into or even starting up in newly emergent or growing sub-sectors.
So, which sectors should the Advanced Manufacturing Plan have shown its support, to guarantee long-term UK economic success?
Life sciences has become somewhat of a UK success story. The pharmaceutical industry in the UK turns over about £57bn per annum, traditionally from the mass production of a stable range of drugs. However, the life science manufacturing sector also includes clinical consumables, laboratory equipment and tools, which could add significant growth to the pharma sector.
Our ageing population, for instance, paired with scientific breakthroughs in personalised medicine (many with roots in UK universities and our NHS) can provide huge growth opportunities for UK manufacturing. In fact, the personalised medicine sector is estimated to grow at a rate of between seven and 11% over the next decade alone.
There is a long tradition of cooperation between the NHS and the R&D base, and greater inclusion of the manufacturing sector could pay dividends. The NHS is the world’s largest nationalised health service and one of the world’s largest employers. Greater NHS manufacturing partnerships could drive investment, save money and provide high-margin export opportunities. Private-sector collaboration is the key driver here.
Elsewhere, we’re witnessing impressive growth across sectors such as smart energy production and distribution – an area where UK manufacturing can sit at the top of the value chain.
A shift to EVs and a move away from gas heating will necessitate an estimated £40-60bn of investment in the onshore transmission network. A new generation of smarter, more-efficient high-voltage distribution networks by 2050, paired with smarter home and community scale demand side energy solutions, will present opportunities for both the UK market as well as our exports. Grimsby-based MyEnergi, which manufactures a range of domestic battery storage systems, microgeneration management and vehicle charging products in the UK, is a great example of a business doing this well.
The UK’s ambition to deploy up to 24GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 and our existing design, manufacturing, commissioning and de-commissioning expertise, provides another opportunity for truly global competitiveness with shared wealth across national supply chains.
And finally, it’s worth considering the nascent space sector, a largely new and growing global market estimated to be worth between $386bn and $469bn in 2021. The UK space sector was valued at over £17.5bn in 2023, with Scotland showing huge promise in this area.
Manufacturing opportunities in this sector range from launch vehicles and satellites, as well as their subsystems. Scientific instruments, ground systems and infrastructure all present new opportunities for SME manufacturing with applications ranging from agriculture, meteorology, communication and border security.
Life sciences, energy and space are by no means the only opportunities for a bolder and more ambitious advanced manufacturing sector – we also have the maritime, chemical, defence, FMGC and foundation industries, like steel and glass, all offering huge opportunities. But the thread that ties all these sectors together is the innovation flowing through the SMEs in their respective sectors – which are currently an untapped asset in our manufacturing arsenal.
A ministry for reindustrialisation, working for our SMEs
It’s often said our SMEs are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and that could certainly be the case in the manufacturing sector if we’re able to truly harness the capabilities they currently present. So, what more could the Advanced Manufacturing Plan have done to support the sector’s smaller businesses within the financial constraints?
Firstly, delegating power where possible to devolved governments and combined authorities – handing over money and policy control to local governments to encourage the development of bottom-up local industrial policies for the regions – could get us a long way.
This could be done with the caveat that investment bids and spending plans should be developed with local SMEs, chambers and manufacturing clusters in the small to medium size category, with businesses proven to be real success stories in their regions.
In Liverpool, it is these sorts of businesses we are supporting with our Horizons project, a partnership between the University of Liverpool’s VEC (Virtual Engineering Centre), Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and Edge Hill University to support business innovation across the Liverpool City Region.
Led by the VEC, the £5.1m horizons programme is funded by the government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) and will support more than 100 SMEs in its pilot phase, providing the expertise, facilities and funding businesses need to drive innovation.
Crucially, it is funding administrated across the region in partnership with local universities that understand the nuances of regional businesses and the unique challenges and pressures they face.
Secondly, we could commit to the opportunity of reindustrialisation. With a focus on new opportunities from sustainable technologies and ensuring that emerging scientific and engineering breakthroughs developed in the UK are manufactured in the UK. Creating a dedicated minister in cabinet tasked not just with advanced manufacturing but with the reindustrialisation of the UK economy, focussed on delivering for SMEs, would match the commitment of the US and EU.
Thirdly, the plan could have considered the benefits of shifting our education system and culture towards engineering and manufacturing. This includes educating teachers and children from primary school upwards about what manufacturing is and the spectrum of roles and opportunities it provides. We should be encouraging local schools, colleges and universities to work with local manufacturing. While this is not a short-term gain, it would deliver the longer-term benefits the industry is seeking.
And finally, we need a vision and ambition worthy of our manufacturing heritage. By tasking and empowering SMEs with the mission of reindustrialisation with a particular focus on encouraging SMEs to take advantage of emerging technologies and sectors.
The Advanced Manufacturing Plan is certainly a welcome document for UK manufacturing. Understanding the government’s priorities for the sector will drive confidence and investment. But there’s a clear omission of support for our SMEs.
With the right support and investment for SMEs, we have the potential to supercharge our manufacturing industry from the bottom up – overlooking this would be a missed opportunity.