Keith Ridgway

The UK has a great future in high-value manufacturing – but changes are needed

The opening of McLaren’s new production facility in Rotherham may have been rich in pomp and ceremony – a 3,850 horsepower convoy of supercars racing to meet the more sedate Royal fleet of Bentleys, for example – but behind the showmanship there are vital lessons for UK manufacturing. There are also important lessons for a government that has staked the economy’s future on an Industrial Strategy targeting just four grand challenges: future mobility, clean growth, artificial intelligence and an ageing population.

The first lesson is that the UK has a great future in high-value manufacturing. The second, especially in the case of automotive and aerospace, is that this requires industry to literally ‘lose weight’ (using composites and new materials), and possibly people (robotics, automation and artificial intelligence/data analytics). The final lesson is that all this happens best when three key partners learn to collaborate: industry, government and the research and innovation talent inside our universities.

All too often, however, this doesn’t happen. Industry can be skeptical about academics. They inhabit a different world, talk a different language, and breathe a more rarified air. Academics can be equally sniffy about industry and the profit motive. And the Treasury can be skeptical about both.

In the case of Rotherham, however, all three of these ingredients are well blended. Take McLaren and lightweighting. Research shows that a 10% reduction in vehicle mass improves fuel consumption by 7%, and every litre of fuel saved reduces CO2 emissions by 2.6kg. Advanced carbon fibre composite materials have higher strength to weight ratios, better chemical and heat resistance and greater design flexibility compared to conventional vehicle construction materials.

If the UK ­– through this partnership between industry, government and research ­– could develop processes that significantly reduce the cost of using these advanced materials in vehicle structures, this would not only benefit the car industry, but other industrial sectors such as wind energy, sporting goods and aerospace.

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