Clive Hickman explains how the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry is helping to shape the contours of the UK’s manufacturing roadmap
Walk past the reception at the pristine Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Ansty Park, Coventry, and you encounter what people working at the centre call ‘The Street’, a busy thoroughfare that provides access to the rest of the building. From the cafeteria comes a lively hum of conversation.
In some ways this is a rather apt summation of what the MTC is about: a route to get from A to B, although its chief executive Clive Hickman is keener on the analogy of a ‘bridge’ to explain the centre’s work.
He said: ‘The MTC was set up in around 2010 and the objective was really to bridge the gap between academic research and industrialisation. Over many, many years we’ve had this disconnect between the fantastic research that’s been coming out of UK academia and it’s not been translated into products in the UK.’
Hickman added: ‘If you look at a continuum, with research being stages one, two, three and production being seven, eight, nine, there’s this gap in the middle of stages four, five and six, which is referred to as the “black hole” or the “valley of death” for manufacturing — this is the area that we’re trying to bridge.’
The MTC was initially set up with a £40m investment from Advantage West Midlands and the East Midlands Development Agency, which was used to create the facility and buy its equipment. The four research partners of the centre — the universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham and The Welding Institute — then set up a company limited by guarantee. The MTC is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, along with six other centres, which, according to Hickman, is set to generate between £150–£170m over the next five years.
In terms of the governance of the organisation, the MTC has a Technology Advisory Board that’s made up of industrial and academic partners. According to Hickman, part of its objective is to ‘develop the technology roadmap for the future for manufacturing, and help identify the new techniques and processes we need to be working on’.
It’s this collaborative atmosphere that he sees as one of the organisation’s day-to-day cultural strengths: ‘At any one time I would say that almost 50 per cent of people on site are either from academia or from our industrial partners. Only 50 per cent of the people you see around the place are actually MTC people.’
This solid backdrop underlines Hickman’s feeling that UK manufacturing is at last on the move: ‘For once in my career, industry, academia and the government all seem to be pulling in the same direction.’
In a previous professional incarnation, Hickman was head of engineering of what The Engineer has referred to as the ‘emerging superpower of the automotive world’, namely Tata Motors. He now feels comfortable with drawing some parallels with the positive culture embraced by the Indians and the shifts currently taking place in UK manufacturing.
Hickman said: ‘There seemed to be at that time in India much more fire in the belly of the people — they had something to prove. They didn’t have very much but they wanted to be successful. I think that what happened in the UK is that we’d become a little bit complacent. We’re actually starting to see a little bit now where in manufacturing we are starting to take the initiative again. This joined-up thinking between government, industry and academia is starting to get over this complacency.’
The MTC started off as being an aerospace-led activity (‘because aerospace had actually seen the opportunity first’, according to Hickman) but, now, the approach is definitely multi-sector. He said: ‘I would say now that we are just as strong in ICT [information and communications technology], we’ve got some very big industrial members who are ICT specialists, companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Siemens. We are starting to develop a strong automotive sector. We’re carrying out quite a lot of work in the process industry. Robotics is a big area for us but robotics cuts across all the sectors rather than being a sector in its own right. We’re also picking up work in medical. Rail is another area in which we are starting to pick up some work, so we’re probably active in half-a-dozen sectors at the moment and we expect then to also stretch into some of the defence sectors, into motor sport and also into renewables. We are also looking at doing some work with domestic goods.’
Hickman is adamant on the important role that SMEs have to play in the work of the MTC: ‘We couldn’t survive without the SMEs. We can’t focus all our attention on large companies in the UK. What we have to have is a balanced portfolio. The SMEs are part of that supplier chain that feeds into the large OEMs in the future and therefore what we are looking to do is how we can help the SMEs. Some of the things we are talking about at the moment is our apprentice academy that we’re trying to establish where we will train more apprentices than we need in a period and we will have a number of apprentices that will be able to be released to the SMEs who don’t have the opportunity to make that investment themselves.
‘We’re also talking to the government about a voucher scheme where the SMEs can get a voucher from the government that they can use in the Catapult Centres to develop their capability.’
To this end the MTC has three specific ‘tiers’ of membership: Tier 1 membership, which is normally OEMs, which requires a £200,000 cash contribution; Tier 2 membership is a £100,000 cash contribution generally for suppliers to the OEMs; and Tier 3 membership is up to a £40,000 in-kind contribution, which is aimed at SMEs.
The MTC is expected by its founders to be an ever-changing environment on its shop floor. Hickman explained: ‘We’re still taking in equipment. The building’s complete. But we’re going to have to modify the building to suit the equipment we take on and we would see equipment that comes in being here for probably three or four years, maximum. We need to stay at the forefront of technology so we wouldn’t be expecting equipment to be here for 20 years.
‘We’re already cutting up a large section of the floor to put in a big concrete mass that will be floating on a rubber mat because we’ve got a piece of equipment coming in where it has accuracy of plus or minus 0.2mm across a working envelope of 11.5 by 9.5m. In order to get that level of accuracy we need something that doesn’t move so we’ve had to modify the floor quite significantly to put in a fairly big mass of concrete to ensure that the floor’s stable.’
A constantly evolving intake of new, cutting-edge, equipment is seen by the chief executive as being one of the centre’s main attractions. Hickman said: ‘It gives us some massive opportunities in terms of being able to demonstrate the practical applications of these types of machines, taking away the risk from the people who are working with us because if they had to invest in that sort of machine before the technology is proven, it’s a big risk. If we can take that risk away: we invest in the machine, we prove the capability of a machine and then our members and customers can look at whether that’s the sort of machine they need for their facility for the future.’
Those benefits are beginning to translate into some bright financial projections, after the MTC began working on projects immediately after moving into the centre in August 2011. According to Hickman: ‘Our turnover this year will be about £3.5m from research work and next year, which will be our first full year of operation, the turnover’s going to be nearer £15m based upon what we know already — a massive growth from a standing start.’