Interview With Manufacturing CEO: The HVM Catapult And Challenges Within The Manufacturing Industry

Interview With Manufacturing CEO: The HVM Catapult And Challenges Within The Manufacturing Industry


What is the HVM Catapult and why was it set-up?

The HVM Catapult was set up to fix a major market failure that exists within the UK. While we are excellent at technological research and sit at number 2 in terms of academic output, we are hopeless at converting that research into manufacturing value.

That’s where we come in. The manufacturing industry has been waiting for an instrument to plug this gap for years and now we’ve got one over the past six years the industry demand for it has been exceptional.

What does your role involve?

I founded HMVC by bringing 7 independent centres together. I don’t have command and control of those separate centres; some of them are, in fact, university departments or offshoots of the university. Instead, I manage a portfolio of seven independents and my job is to make them work considerably more than the sum of their parts.

I also manage the collaboration between the centres, but most importantly, I am the principal interface with our government sponsor so I secure the government core funding through means of a developed business plan and strategy.

I make sure that the money then works for the best national benefit while the centres job is to do the work, discharge the responsibilities and report back, so we can demonstrate to the government that money has been effectively spent with the right levels of economic impact.

What are the biggest challenges in UK HVM today?

The enduring challenge, topical now as it ever was, is that the UK is fairly risk-averse compared to our competitors. Companies in the UK would rather not make any new investments that might be more technically challenging to manage. The investment community is also risk-averse, not predisposed to lend to people who buy riskier and more advanced bits of kit and equipment.

The challenge is getting UK manufacturers to embrace technology and the risks that go with it. That is quite an enduring, not to say uniquely British problem, we suffer from compared to other nations who are more inclined to a more entrepreneurial risk taking spirit.

That’s one of the reasons why we are there to help mitigate that challenge, using some government money to share in the risk of introducing more challenging technologies to market. Subset of that is all sorts of fantastic technologies we are working on, any one of which is risky, the biggest barriers of all are the psychological ones.

What does industry need from the government to succeed in post-Brexit Britain?

We need consistency; Brexit has brought with it a great level of uncertainty for firms within nearly all industries and sectors. For manufacturing however we are at least enjoying an unprecedented period of support for advanced manufacturing.

The government has realised how important it is to have the rich seed of advanced manufacturing in its economy. It has introduced instruments like Catapults, it has developed an industrial strategy and there is now a greater focus on innovation which is fantastic – I’ve never known anything like it!

What we now need is to stick with the plan we have. It is another typical British thing – let’s move on to the next big thing and not stick with it, but it’s actually working. Consistency is what the industry likes. It establishes a foundation of support to aid with integrating and investing into difficult and challenging technologies. The last thing you want to do is alter that model and introduce uncertainty.

The only way the UK can compete in advanced manufacturing is on technology, we can’t compete on labour or energy costs. Good Brexit, bad Brexit is being on top of our innovation game which is paramount to success.

How is the digital revolution effecting manufacturing and what do we need to do to enable our manufacturing businesses to thrive in this new environment?

The world of digital in manufacturing is heavily polarised in companies within the UK, which are up there with the best in the world. Some of our prime advanced manufacturing industries, such as aerospace and automotive are brilliant practitioners of what I would describe as state of the art manufacturing because they are all the digital tools and techniques that have been refined, over several years, into an excellent tool set which improves “right first time” high productivity and succeeding.

The challenge we face is cascading that capability further down into supply chains. The challenge comes when the big players who get it and have invested heavily into it, continue to benefit but their supply chains will potentially weaken because they can’t keep pace.

So part of our challenge is to demystify this whole “industry 4.0 bit”. As the Engineering Employers Federation showed, 40% of SMEs state a lack of understanding of even what industry 4.0. Which is a major predicament.

This terror of the unknown creates a fear it’s going to lead to a million pound contracts for digital tool sets, when in reality adopting the digital revolution often costs very little. One of the things we do to demystify it is running a low cost access to fourth industrial revolution.

We have a little internal strapline: “industry 4 for less than a grand”. It’s about getting people on the digital journey and realising it’s not a seven figure consideration before you start. Further to the challenge, there’s an awful lot of consultants out there claiming to be able to wave a magic wand over industry 4.0 that is also congesting the market place. There are a lot of snake oil talisman out there at the moment.

Is productivity a serious issue? How will technology drive improvements to improve productivity and our long term competitiveness?

It’s no surprise that the businesses that are the front runners in adopting digital tools and techniques-aerospace and automotive-are enjoying fantastic levels of productivity, are making more cars with fewer people, and more aircraft components with fewer people than we have ever seen before.

So our productivity stats for advanced industries are really very good and stand the test of being up there with everyone else but then there are these big gaps down in our supply chains. People are hanging onto old kit and equipment; they think they’re doing the right thing but really they’re struggling with productivity as a result. If you’re not getting your manufacturing processes right first time, they’re having to rework things and of course it impacts productivity. Some well-intentioned sweating of old assets, typical British thing to do, is actually having an adverse effect down in the supply chains productivity.

But what is encouraging is that other sectors that have got poor productivity are looking to our advanced industries for help. Classic example is the construction industry; I know this is about manufacturing but bear with me. The construction industry recognises it has very poor productivity and it’s declared that “they’re on a bit of a burning platform and need to change”.

They approached us due to the fact we have access to aerospace and automotive expertise to basically transfer our know-how on the manufacturing process into construction, so they begin to make construction feel more like a manufacturing project than building project. By doing that you can get great productivity gains because you’re actually using manufacturing style processes and disciplines which focus on productivity.

So, for instance how we’re focusing on things like modular construction, which makes old building methodologies of building brick by brick obsolete. A much better way would be to build big chunks of houses in factory environment, where you would then assemble them.

The result? The house gets built, the plasterers come in and then the guy comes in to cut the wall down to put the wiring in. Basic stuff like that to use physical tools and techniques of the manufacturing process means you can build a house like you build a car or washing machine. That discipline leads to much better “right first time”, lower levels of rework and better productivity.

We developed it in manufacturing and now it’s interesting to see it gets taken further into other industries. In the end it’s all about discipline.

How has the Government’s industrial strategy effected how you support UK manufacturing?

Like I said before, I’ve known anything like it, it has actually been transformational. Manufacturing has been unloved for many decades and now there is a realisation that a balanced economy needs to have this decent seem of advanced manufacturing in it and I have to say over 3 successive governments, there’s been a solid and consistent government support.

Our programme started in the tail end of the Labour administration with Peter Mandelson. Lord Mandelson then went into the coalition and was supported by Secretary of State, Vince Cable. Now we’re into a new Conservative administration that fully gets it and has committed to their industrial strategy some unprecedented levels of innovation funding.

You may have heard of the industrial strategy challenge fund. A part of that fund was specifically to put some shared risk funding behind some of the big technical challenges we have in UK. One that we’ve secured for the automotive industry is the Faraday battery challenge, which is all about developing battery technology for use in cars within the UK.

As we transition away from internal combustion engines into electric cars, how do we build our battery technology in the UK? The big reason to manufacture battery technology in the UK is knowledge, we in fact lack the raw materials required to make it.

Off the back of that knowledge, the government is helping to fund the new generation of battery technology for the UK. This leads to multiple benefits; the car industry moves more towards electrification, which means cleaner cities, less smog and pollution and more jobs created.

Quantums of funding are very good, the only thing I would say is you’ve got a successful formula – stick with it!

How do you see the future of manufacturing in the UK?

The HVM Catapult supports 3,000 clients a year on 1,800 projects a year. We’ve got a unique insight into the future of those companies we are working with because they are working on their future technology.

When you aggregate all of that together, we’ve got this fantastic visibility of the future of manufacturing in the UK; sorts of products, sort of advancements. That unique insight is a very powerful thing for us to have and puts us in an excellent position to be an independent strategic advisor to government. In answer to your question, when we look at those 3,000 individual pipelines of activity, it all looks pretty promising. The whole picture based on technology is really strong. There’re more and more reasons to add value in the UK in manufacturing off the back of the technology offering. It’s a very, very valuable proposition. First of all, we are well equipped as we have good support with things like catapult and industrial strategy and we have the appetite and the technology; the universities are churning out some fantastic research, which is market applicable. It looks really good from my perspective, and that’s not just shot from the hip, that’s looking at this unique insight we have it is telling us that the future is looking good.

If you would like to be featured in a future insightful Industrials interview, or if you would like to find out how Norman Broadbent Interim can help your organisation, please get in touch with Nick on or +44 (0) 0207 484 0106


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