The UK is the sixth largest manufacturing nation in the world, despite the demise of many of its big industrial companies.
To maintain this, industry needs to stay one step ahead of competitor nations by establishing a manufacturing-focused organisation that has the critical mass to direct the efforts of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to lead the world in innovation.
This was the conclusion of the annual innovation roundtable, sponsored by the Sainsbury Management Fellowship, an association of chartered engineers with MBAs from leading international business schools. It brought together 15 leaders from industry, government and academia to discuss the future of UK manufacturing.
The roundtable discussed how the industry should manage technology and innovation in the future.
The panel agreed that SMEs could make an important contribution to closing the gap between manufacturing in the UK and the other top five manufacturing nations. Many delegates observed a clear trend away from large, national champions towards smaller highly skilled companies driving innovation.
However, while SMEs can be competitive and innovative, it is often difficult for them to invest in the future — they simply do not have the time. To address this, new strategies are required from organisations operating at the industry level.
One delegate cited the advanced nature of UK corporate and management structures. The UK companies are now exporting these ‘soft’ skills, in addition to physical goods, overseas.
As a result, exporting expertise is likely to be a major growth area for UK industry. However, in order for these skills to remain attractive to overseas companies, the UK firms will need to innovate at a faster rate than their competitors.
Intellectual property — not just patents, but also processes, knowledge and design — as the foundation of sustainable innovation, was also considered to be a key issue for companies. There was a consensus that UK industry, large and small, has a poor understanding and exploitation of intellectual property, and that needs to change urgently. A free market economy could be too short term a solution to driving innovation in areas such as automotive, defence and aerospace. The manufacturing industry needs decade-long commitments to blue-sky research and industry-focused innovation initiatives.
Delegates called for the setting up of a body similar to the Wellcome Trust or Carbon Trust to help drive manufacturing innovation and create a more stable environment for industry.
The Manufacturing Trust would be an independent charity with long-term sustainable endowment funding from industry, government and private individuals. It would steer long-term innovation initiatives in sunrise manufacturing industries, support innovation activities within SMEs and provide intellectual property education for engineers.
Led by engineers, the trust would not change priority as government or economic conditions shift, but make long-term policy commitments, just as the Wellcome Trust does for medicine.
Individual SMEs unable to develop new technologies for their industries alone would collaborate under the umbrella of the trust and build innovation into their businesses in the long term, without having to specialise in a single aspect.
Knowledge Transfer Networks and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) were cited as illustrations of what could be possible on a larger scale. For example, the Sensors and Instrumentation KTN, with 2,000 members from the private sector, raised £23m in funding for innovation in a particular area.
An example is the Carbon Trust; a body created to spearhead innovation in carbon reducing technologies. The organisation’s senior management team consists primarily of engineers and it has been very successful. Perhaps it is time to do the same for the manufacturing industry.
A Manufacturing Trust would put the industry back in control of its long-term destiny and manage the innovation that will be the way forward for industry in the UK.
Ernest Poku is president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship
A manufacturing trust should be set up to help UK industry, especially SMEs, push its innovations and keep ahead of global competition, says Ernest Poku