Push for the future

With its reputation for technology-driven manufacturing the east midlands is now looking towards a multi-disciplinary focus on innovation for sustainability. Berenice Baker reports.

The east midlands, in the heart of England, is home to many pioneering transport innovations and manufacturers. Frank Whittle’s jet engine roared into production at his Lutterworth workshop. Rolls-Royce has a site in Derby, Caterpillar has a large factory in Desford, and Triumph Motorcycles are made in Hinkley. Bombardier and Toyota also have a strong presence there.

Even the UK’s roads and transport infrastructure owe a debt to the region, thanks to Nottingham University’s Transportation Engineering Centre, the UK’s authority on most surfaces designed to carry traffic, be it road, rail or footpath.

On 2004 figures, transport equipment manufacture accounted for 3.5 per cent of the region’s output, against a national figure of 1.9 per cent. The manufacturing sector accounts for 23.2 per cent of output and 19.3 per cent of employment against 15.9 per cent and 13.2 per cent respectively for the UK.

Transport equipment is one of the business-led priority sectors highlighted by the East Midlands Development Agency (EMDA) through its Regional Economic Strategy, which identifies regional strengths to distribute £150m funds a year. Other sectors are healthcare and bioscience, sustainable construction and food and drink.

EMDA works closely with the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) to support and finance local industry. Tony Pritchard, MAS East Midlands centre director, said: ‘The east midlands’s traditional and core manufacturing sector contributes to almost a quarter of the region’s output, and we should be very proud of this. MAS East Midlands has worked very closely with hundreds of our region’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and with the increase in services offered by MAS in its third phase, I expect these figures will grow steadily. This means we can help more manufacturing businesses that want to succeed and compete, by helping them to initiate lean techniques, develop their services and increase productivity.’

EMDA’s east midlands innovation initiative has developed a technology framework to identify and prioritise technology investments. Innovation is also underpinned by research from the eight universities in the region.

Chris Rudd, dean of engineering at Nottingham University, said the university supports the region’s transport engineering in its wider context. It carries out research into automobile and aircraft powertrains, lightweight materials and human factors around control of aircraft and mass transportation.

It also works closely with its neighbour Rolls-Royce on projects from aero-engine technology and transmission systems to manufacturing. Rolls-Royce recently announced a new investment programme for a regional collaboration involving several universities.

From biomaterials for tissue replacement to healthcare monitoring devices and drug delivery systems, there is also strong regional expertise in the area of medical technology. One notable success story is the non-invasive foetal heart monitoring developed by Nottingham University spinout Monica.

Nottingham is also renowned for its research into magnetic resonance imagery, with Prof Sir Peter Mansfield jointly winning a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2003 for his discoveries in the field.

Communications technology is another growing area. The £9m Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) centre of excellence is being constructed on the University of Nottingham Innovation Park, part-funded through a £3.4m grant from EMDA. It will combine expertise from the Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy and the Centre for Geospatial Science to provide research, training and other support for industry, including SMEs and entrepreneurs.

Jeff Moore, EMDA’s chief executive, said: ‘More than 120,000 people in the east midlands are already employed in industries closely related to GNSS and telematics. This facility will really boost the sector, putting the region on the map as a highly-skilled and innovative area where technology is driving business growth.’

The centre’s work will focus on applications for satellite navigation and positioning systems, including the US Global Positioning System and the European Galileo system, scheduled to be fully operational by 2013. Through this, it aims to provide new technology transfer and business development opportunities.

Though the east midland’s strengths have been rooted in transport, Rudd sees its future technological focus matching UK and global concerns, with sustainability at the top of the agenda.

‘We need to address the global sustainability of energy, water supply, construction,’ said Rudd. ‘The big challenge is getting the technocrats working with the social scientists to develop solutions that are fit for purpose and fit for the communities that will use them.

‘Engineers, economists, geographers and social scientists all need to come together to develop multi-disciplinary solutions.’

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