As our latest political contributor Lord Drayson writes, there are many misconceptions about the UK’s manufacturing sector: not least the notion that it barely exists, or that if it does it is no longer relevant.
This analysis is, of course, way off the mark. And as our report on the recent investment in Sheffield Forgemasters demonstrates, traditional so-called ’heavy engineering’ techniques could, in fact, be key to the future of the UK’s high-tech economy.
The Sheffield firm, which can trace its heritage back to the dawn of Britain’s industrial age, has drummed up £140m of funding (more than half from the UK government) to build a giant 15,000-tonne forge press that will build components for the next generation of nuclear reactors. It’s a piece of equipment that relies heavily on manual skill but very little on automation and isn’t so far removed from the blacksmith’s hammer. And yet it’s one of the most effective ways of producing the safety-critical structural components key to the nuclear reactors of the future.
Examples of traditional engineering at the service of advanced technology don’t get much more compelling than this: here we have engineers sometimes disparagingly referred to as ’metal bashers’ building the components that will dominate the global energy industry for many decades to come.
There are positive signs of the continuing relevance of the UK’s industrial heritage elsewhere in the world of energy, specifically in offshore wind. The Engineer has long argued that offshore wind presents significant opportunities for UK manufacturing. Not only do we have one of the planet’s best wind resources on our doorstep, we also have the established capabilities and skills in our marine, offshore and power-generation sectors to capitalise on it.
Despite embarrassing setbacks such as the Vestas Isle of Wight closure, the government’s vision of turning the UK into an industrial hub for the offshore wind industry appears to be turning into reality. So far this year, Siemens, GE, Clipper, and Mabey Bridge have all announced plans to build turbine manufacturing facilities in the UK. Like the nuclear industry, offshore wind is not a sector that requires artificial life support from the government. It does need investment but the UK’s expertise, combined with its location, presents a compelling case for growth and investment.
We may never return to the heavily industrialised Britain of the early 20th century, but there are plenty of signs that the skills and expertise on which the UK’s industrial reputation was founded may still have a major role to play.