Michael Ward, Chief Technical Officer of the University of Strathclyde’s Advanced Forming Research Centre, suggests how basic research could be commercialised
The valley of death: it’s a concept undoubtedly familiar to anyone who has attempted to develop a new technology or product. For decades, it has been the pitfall of the manufacturing industry; a place from where many potentially transformative research projects and great ideas have failed to emerge.
In its current form, the valley of death has been a useful way of providing insight into the events building up to the industrialisation of a specific manufacturing technology. But, we have to ask whether this is enough – does it help us tackle all the issues we face in maturing technology? From experience to date, the answer has to be a definitive “no”, particularly when we’re trying to address a systemic market failure that may have developed over decades.
Of course, this biblical-sounding concept sits within a wider context: technology readiness levels (TRLs). It occupies the middle section of this framework, representing the chasm between fundamental science, the pre-occupation of many academic institutions, and a developed, market-ready piece of technology. Many attempts have been made to fill this gap.
The entire model, however, comes with its limitations. While bridging the valley of death through focused technology programmes has had a substantial impact on the UK’s manufacturing economy, in more complex cases of genuine market failure a richer “readiness” link is required, underpinned by three supporting pillars: health, maturity, and cadence.
The first of these should consider the underlying health of the entire manufacturing landscape, comprising the market, supply chain, and product technology base which characterise the area in which intervention is taking place. It might be the case that a situation is unsalvageable because of fundamental structural reasons, or there might be limited appetite from incumbent companies. Nevertheless, this pillar is crucial in understanding when a market failure can be converted into an achievable challenge, and when attention should be focused elsewhere.
Technological maturity is another important area of reflection. While readiness relates to the specifics of applying a single technology to an individual company problem, maturity looks at a wider picture. It relates the underlying technology, skills, and capability to work with technology at a general level, across industrial, research, and connected networks. The maturity pillar essentially tells us whether we have the national capability to develop and change an entire branch of industry, rather than purely to support individual companies.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is cadence. It should go without saying that the pace and frequency of change differs between industries; but it’s not taken into consideration in the current readiness framework. In the aerospace and nuclear markets, for example, today’s products can expect to be in service for decades and new ones take years to develop and certify. In consumer electronics, on the other hand, things move at a much faster pace.
Slow cadence industries
Given that the UK’s incumbent industrial base and strong-established interests tend to be in slow cadence industries, its industries can reasonably be expected to move at a slower pace than in emerging economies. So, this pillar, above all else, will tell us whether we have a chance to get the timing right on major investment programmes and is a key aspect of how to assess the viability of the impact from market interventions.
We have the opportunity to move beyond using our current readiness frameworks and develop them into something more fulfilling and informative – an approach that can form an integral part of a targeted and more enlightened way of directing government involvement in industry. The impact could be huge; turning what we already have into something much more impactful on the entire UK supply chain. It’s time to start building that new bridge now.