Comment: Printing Prosperity - getting Britain’s world-class research to commercial success

To remain at the forefront of science and technology, a thriving UK manufacturing industry is vital, says Prof Richard Hague, Professor of Additive Manufacturing; director, Centre for Additive Manufacturing (CfAM), Faculty of Engineering, Nottingham University.

Over the next decade, virtualisation and digitalisation will rapidly transform the UK’s industrial strategy
Over the next decade, virtualisation and digitalisation will rapidly transform the UK’s industrial strategy - Nottingham University

Universities throughout the UK boast some of the best applied-science research in the world, and there is a wealth of this which can, and should, be commercialised. But in many universities, research-generated IP is not translating into investible business opportunities.

If we want profitable manufacturing industries – areas the UK has traditionally excelled in - we need to strengthen our pipeline of commercialised cutting-edge research. For example, next-generation additive manufacturing (AM), which will enable the processing of functional and multiple materials, can significantly contribute to this effort, but only if we can get the innovation to market.

The Additive Manufacturing industry today

The AM industry is poised to reach £16.6bn by 2026. No longer an emerging science, it is the technology creating next generation, customisable, three-dimensional objects, providing engineers with unprecedented design freedoms.

The UK has always punched above its weight in terms of AM research, led by dedicated teams such as Nottingham University’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing (CfAM). CfAM is already working with industry giants like GSK, BAE Systems, Astra Zeneca and Rolls Royce to exploit multi-material, next-generation AM across automotive to aerospace applications.

AM can also unlock some major sustainability challenges in the production process – alongside fuel-saving through light-weighting of components (e.g. with topology optimisation/lattice structures), chemistry-focused processes like CfAM’s reactive jetting work show great potential in tackling energy-intensive forms of manufacturing. AM can also localise supply chains; borderless production through digital methods means you can design in one part of the world and produce it elsewhere, bringing business back to the UK.

The challenge

AM is well on the way to becoming a key future technology, with a role to play in everything from the net zero transition through to the adoption of quantum computing. But despite this, investment in the translation of AM research in the UK lacks resources and ambition compared to schemes such as America Makes and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft overseas. The number of AM related start-ups has also steadily reduced since 2013, calling into question if the funding mechanism is working at all.

Broken system: what this means for the UK start up scene                                                                                    

Of course, these issues are not isolated to AM. Ultimately, it speaks to a general structural problem for the UK in terms of commercial exploitation of research. For a country that prides itself on its entrepreneurialism, there is still a disconnect between developing world-class research and market entry. Why aren’t we leading the world in all the areas of innovation like semiconductors, lithium-ion batteries, that we invented?

One of the challenges is that current metrics for academic promotion apply greater weight to the need for high-quality publications than around IP that can be channelled into start-ups. It can also be challenging for researchers to access the capital needed to get their ideas to the market and there is historically an imbalance in the amount of equity between universities and spinout researcher-founders. As such, researchers are missing valuable opportunities to patent the fruits of their work. There is now a real danger that the UK misses the opportunity to lead.

What needs to happen

Over the next decade, virtualisation and digitalisation will rapidly transform the UK’s industrial strategy. There is a clear opportunity for university-based researchers to patent more and benefit from this, facilitated by greater IP licensing from institutions. Industry has a role to play here too – knowledge exchange between the City, regional industry leaders and researchers is crucial to creating a pipeline of research commercialisation.

We also need policy change from government. Be that making commercialisation a codified part of universities’ mandates; making licensing income a more important revenue stream for universities; or creating a regulatory framework for how 3D printed devices can be brought to market.

What this calls for is a UK manufacturing strategy: a 20-year industrial framework that includes an overhaul of the funding system, especially around driving more patents through universities and the Catapult Network, to successfully bridge the gap between research and the commercial market.

If we want to reap the economic benefits of the UK’s world-beating applied science sectors, then we must continue to advocate for comprehensive reform to our research commercialisation ecosystem.

Prof Richard Hague, Professor of Additive Manufacturing; Director, Centre for Additive Manufacturing (CfAM), Faculty of Engineering, Nottingham University