UK to help make China’s manufacturing greener

A group of UK technology firms are headed to China in search of opportunities to apply their ideas to the country’s manufacturing industry.

Hydrogen fuel cell systems, biotech plastic production and 3D-printed filters are among the technologies to be showcased to Chinese firms next week as part of the trade mission organised by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

The 13 companies and five academic groups taking part in the trip will be looking for potential customers and partners with which to undertake collaborative research on how their technologies could improve Chinese manufacturing capability and sustainability.

The mission will involve matching companies to counterpart firms in China in order to create potential entries for a TSB funding competition for joint research projects from the two countries, said the organisation’s lead technologist for manufacturing, Merlin Goldman.

‘This is about coming up with new ideas and new projects for new processes that can make something better or more efficient or cleaner,’ he told The Engineer.

‘The Chinese manufacturers will have a challenge. They want to make something more sustainable. These guys may have a solution but it’s not ready-made so they’re going to have to work together.’

The mission’s organiser, Simon Rushworth, recognised that enabling Chinese manufacturers to become more efficient might not be seen as in Britain’s strategic interests.

‘There’s always this line where if we take things across [to China] and they implement them then it leaves us behind with no long-term gain,’ he said.

‘However, to some extent, by licensing technology and also by developing it so that we become part of the supply chain into the Chinese manufacturing market, then there is a lot of benefit for small companies to access this huge market.’

He added: ‘There’s obviously a balance to make sure people don’t just go for the short-term advantage and then it’s lost all together. It has to be a long-term engagement, which is what this mission is all about developing: innovations that can be used to benefit all parties.’

The participating companies cover a wide range of technologies and have a variety of reasons for visiting China and expectations of what they will gain, from customers to joint venture partners to an increased understanding of the market.

Ingenza, a firm which helps chemical manufacturers develop alternative products and processes based on biomass raw materials rather than oil, believes its technology services are particularly suited to the country’s needs and needs to work closely with its customers.

‘One of China’s problems is they don’t have any oil,’ said the firm’s bioprocess team leader, Reuben Carr. ‘So any products that they’re manufacturing that are oil derived, they could have a requirement for the type of service that we’re offering if they can envisage a petrochemical replacement.’

Chelmsford-basd E2V is hoping to find partners to co-develop uses for its industrial microwave products, and is joining the mission despite already having a presence in China in order to benefit from the TSB’s experience in fostering research partnerships.

Product marketing manager Anthony Fernandez said developing countries were a better market for them than European ones. ‘The big difference between China and here is that chemical production in China is all about building new plants and expanding whereas here it’s about making use of whatever assets have been around for the last 40 or 50 years.’

Several companies said that their technology was not widely understood and that China would offer them more receptive customers, either because of the sheer scale of the Chinese marketplace or in some cases a greater appreciation of the benefits of their technology.

Ionotec, a company that makes specialist ceramic components for large-scale battery systems, said it had already done business with a Chinese firm via the internet but similar British companies hadn’t been interested in developing the technology.

‘But also this is a global technology,’ said chairman Wynn Jones. ‘The UK is probably two per cent of the global situation so not surprisingly we sell 99 per cent of our product elsewhere.’

Neil Burns, director of 3D-printed filter company Croft Filters, said he had been surprised at how difficult it had been to persuade British companies to switch to additive manufactured products.

‘We think that China is possibly more advanced than the UK in additive manufacturing and it’s one of those things where the more people that know about additive manufacturing then the bigger the marketplace.’

Burns also recognised China’s reputation for poor intellectual property law enforcement, but said the nature of his technology was such that if it were copied it would only increase the marketplace. ‘We’d rather have one per cent of a big cake than 100 per cent of no cake,’ he said.