20/30 Vision: The future of the AMRC

27 October 2020

Smart, sustainable and resilient manufacturing beats at the heart of a bold new vision for the University of Sheffield AMRC. Steve Foxley, CEO, talks to Katia Harston about writing the next chapter for the research centre and what is planned for the future.

As an opening chapter, the first 20 years of the AMRC makes for impressive reading; a compelling start to a story of aspiration and hope.

From humble beginnings on a bleak, post-industrial wasteland, it has enjoyed a meteoric rise to become the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the UK’s innovation and research community, sitting at the heart of a thriving, advanced manufacturing park home to industry heavyweights, crucial supply chains and some of the brightest and best minds in engineering.

But there is more to the AMRC’s story than buildings, big names and cutting-edge kit. It is about the power to transform, says Steve Foxley, who took over the reins as chief executive officer at the start of the year from retiring founder Keith Ridgway.

“I use the analogy of a book,” says Steve. “What’s in the first chapter of the AMRC, what has been achieved? I think if you look back, it has just been incredible. The AMRC has had this meteoric rise, it is now seen as the jewel in the crown. And it has grown, year over year, becoming more and more successful.

“If you look back to those early days, the vision and purpose for the AMRC was made clear in that first chapter: create sustainable wealth for all. A quick glance out of a window at the AMRC today is proof of its transformative success with the regeneration of Orgreave from a landmark of industrial confrontation to one of industrial collaboration.” 

The home of the former coke works, once seen as an area of decline and deprivation, has outshined those gloomy shadows of the past to become a leading light and a beacon of hope for the future. More importantly for Steve, it is a powerful symbol for what is possible in other forgotten northern towns scarred by lost industry and lack of opportunity.

“The before and after picture reads like a checklist for success,” says Steve with Orgreave transformed; 600 researchers, technicians and support staff employed at the AMRC; £300m of investment brought to the Advanced Manufacturing Park creating 1,750 jobs; home to manufacturing sites for Boeing, Rolls-Royce, McLaren and others critical to supply chains; more than 120 industrial partners; innovative, new technologies and processes bringing impact to the UK and international manufacturing sectors; 1,000 new homes; a training centre for the future pipeline of engineering talent; and more than 1,300 engineering apprentices putting £20m of new income into the region’s homes. 

By 2030 we want to have a fully living and breathing circular factory demonstrator; we want to be the leading light on how to adopt circular principles; how to design for sustainability.

It is an incredible platform from which to build upon, at scale, around the region, says Steve, who has helped pen a roadmap for the future to deliver the next ambitious chapter of the AMRC’s story.

“There is recognition, a feeling in the stomach of the organisation, that we have reached a turning point,” says Steve. “With the original founding fathers leaving, reaching the size we have, we’ve been discussing whether we are in shape for the next decade, and is it more of the same we need to do or is it something different? Do we continue on the same path or is it a different path that we want to take?”

He uses the analogy of the New Zealand All Blacks jersey, referring to the James Kerr book ‘Legacy’ about the legendary rugby team and the ‘mantras’ it has adopted to become the best in the world. 

“One of those mantras is ‘be a good ancestor’ - that means planting trees you’ll never see and ‘leaving the jersey in a better place’, essentially adding to the legacy of a great team.

“The jersey and the incredible platform achieved in the last 20 years has been passed to us from Keith and the team. When we fast forward and think about how we hand the jersey to the next generation who will lead the AMRC - what things would we like to have achieved when we hand over the jersey? What do we think the future looks like and what do we want to see in the book in 2030 to say ‘Here’s what we delivered in chapter two’. It is about building on this legacy.” 

The AMRC’s purpose is clear - it is here to make things better. With a proven track record of regeneration, of creating ecosystems and communities, and with collaboration in its DNA, the AMRC delivers and takes risks; it sees things that others don’t. The AMRC likes to change the game when it is at the top of its game.

At the core of the next chapter are four big themes: sustainability, digital, future propulsion and levelling up but also a clear commitment to supply chain resilience and making sure more of the fruit from its R&D work makes its way into industry and onto factory floors. 

We’re going to put a sustainability KPI on every project. That means we are not only measuring cost-saving and efficiency-savings but we can identify what the CO2 or waste reduction is. That’s one of the big goals for us.

The AMRC knows sustainability is a fast-moving field but one that must be grappled with if manufacturing is to change for the better. The AMRC wants to drive that change, creating a world-leading UK circular factory demonstrator and test bed to become an exemplar in sustainable manufacturing.

“We’re hearing all these exciting announcements about investment in hydrogen, net zero flight and zero-carbon transport - but it is pointless if we do not manufacture them in a sustainable way,” says Steve.

“By 2030 we want to have a fully living and breathing circular factory demonstrator; we want to be the leading light on how to adopt circular principles; how to design for sustainability, make sure you are minimising waste, minimising energy, that you are reusing materials as much as you can and you are repairing equipment or recycling it into other sectors or other industries. 

“We’re looking to put part of our capabilities into a new building that will be operated as a mini-manufacturing site but from a circular economy perspective; looking at how to achieve minimal impact to the environment but still manufacture the things we need to manufacture. 

“A lot of people have talked about circular factories and the circular economy but I don’t think anyone has yet got a true demonstrator to show how you can bring all those things together: design, energy, waste, right to repair, the infrastructure of the building. I think many of our partners would be fascinated by an exemplar in the UK in how to manufacture in a sustainable way.” 

Steve says the organisation needs to ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to meeting net zero targets and has ambitious plans to measure sustainability for each project undertaken by its research engineers.

“We’re very good at capturing KPIs to say how much productivity we have achieved, how much cost-saving we have achieved - but our partners have also told us that they would still back projects even if there were no efficiency or cost improvement but there was a CO2 reduction.

“So we’re going to put a sustainability KPI on every project. That means we are not only measuring cost-saving and efficiency-savings but we can identify what the CO2 or waste reduction is. That’s one of the big goals for us.”

We want to create the first fully connected, open access digital manufacturing test bed that we can use for any sector. This means we would have the factory fully sensored and all of the data connected - and it would connect not just within Factory 2050 but into all of the supply chains as well.

The AMRC leadership team intends to build on the success of its flagship Factory 2050, with plans to have the UK’s first fully-connected, open-access digital manufacturing test bed that will focus on data, connectivity, visualisation, complete integration with suppliers, and digital twins with AI learning.

“We have done some magnificent work at Factory 2050 but what’s the next evolution? We want to create the first fully-connected, open-access digital manufacturing test bed that we can use for any sector. This means we would have the factory fully-sensored and all of the data connected - and it would connect not just within Factory 2050 but into all of the supply chains as well. 

“It would be open-access so that people could use that data and run whatever analysis they want. We’d like to have a fully-digital site at Factory 2050 and put that together with a digital twin and bring in AI learning to then run the physical environment based upon insights from the digital. We want to have that digital thread sewn all the way through the manufacturing process, so whether that’s design into manufacturing, repair and servicing, all the way through to the supply chain.” 

The AMRC will play to its strengths in the aerospace sector and support global zero-carbon goals through the development of whole product lifecycle capabilities for future propulsion systems such as hydrogen, high-power density batteries and biofuels.

“We know the future of flight will be going greener - whether that is electrification, biofuels, hydrogen, or some sort of hybrid across all of those, that is the direction of flight for future propulsion,” says Steve. “In the next ten years we want to focus on delivering the manufacturing techniques and innovations that we are going to need to build the future propulsion technologies.”

Audacious goals have been laid down to improve manufacturing productivity and resilience by mapping national supply chains and vulnerabilities, and linking partners together to identify UK supply options. However, perhaps the hardest challenge Steve and the team have set for the AMRC is delivering a step change in productivity.

We know the future of flight will be going greener - whether that is electrification, biofuels, hydrogen, or some sort of hybrid across all of those, that is the direction of flight for future propulsion. In the next ten years we want to focus on delivering the manufacturing techniques and innovations that we are going to need to build the future propulsion technologies.

“We are incredibly proud of what has been achieved in chapter one but there are probably two things that the team want to do better in the next chapter,” says Steve. “The first is around productivity. There’s no doubt the AMRC has brought inward investment from big companies like Rolls-Royce, Boeing and McLaren but we haven’t really shifted the dial on the overall productivity in the Sheffield City Region, and in Yorkshire and the North.

“One of the things we wanted to have in the core strategy was around levelling-up. We think the AMRC has a really important role to play there with what has been learned from the Orgreave regeneration and how we can use the ‘ten commandments’ captured from that experience. We want to use our regeneration skills to bring R&D funding, productivity and industrial commons to level-up other forgotten northern towns.”

Smaller firms have a crucial part to play too when it comes to nudging the dial on productivity. 

“We have a vast array of businesses in South Yorkshire and if you are going to make a step change in productivity you have got to move a significant amount of those businesses. If we look at SMEs for example, you have not only got to move the very innovative ones at one end of the spectrum, you’ve also got to move the middle. 

“The vast majority of SMEs only need a small incremental improvement. In this next chapter we need to do more with local SME businesses. We need to be helping new, innovative businesses spin out at the one end - so where do we find the next Razor and FourJaw - but we’re also going to have to move the lower end of SMEs and what can be done to help move their productivity. Smaller firms won’t want international capability or drive for international business but how can we help make them be more productive? 

“We are here to help UK productivity improve. We have had this valley of death from research not getting into production and into industry. The reason we want that research to go onto factory floors is to improve productivity. There is more we can do to get our innovation into manufacturing and into industry.” 

We want to use our regeneration skills to bring R&D funding, productivity and industrial commons to level up other forgotten northern towns.

Alongside the big themes sit adjacent and transformational strategies that encompass everything from emerging markets and international spokes to smart assembly services, licensing, spin-outs and joint ventures to fast tracking innovation into industry. 

Pulling all this together during a global pandemic has had its challenges, says Steve, but what started out as 12 individuals trying to write the future has now become a tight team, sharing ideas.

“Trying to get 12 peoples’ thoughts and ideas aligned on something like innovation and R&D which is so vast, and across all the sectors which we work in, and all of the technologies, is a mammoth task. The first few weeks was a case of capturing everything in a massive funnel and trying to sort it as a team and hear each person’s opinion on why they think something is important.“ And all this against the backdrop of Covid.

“We had to agree on how we were going to structure this. We knew that directly post-Covid there were going to be some topics that were urgent and important that we needed to work on and we gave that a first initial 12 months. We then recognised that is only one year out of the next decade and actually our job is to be looking further ahead, medium term and longer term.”

A key part of this was going out to staff and asking what they think the AMRC should be focussing on in the next 12 months, five and ten years. 

“Employees shared their opinions and ideas, and from that we had some quite exciting thoughts about how we can keep that skunkwork, innovative muscle that is really well developed in the business. We are going to use the employee feedback as a stepping stone and an exciting way for the rest of the organisation to contribute to our roadmap for the future.” 

The strategy planning process was due to kick off in March, a week after the Covid-19 pandemic brought the country to a standstill. Two physical workshops were planned, one in March and another in April, ready to go live in June. But lockdown restrictions forced those plans to be scrapped and in the end Steve and the team instead ran a daily virtual workshop, every day, for about eight weeks. 

“It put us a couple of weeks behind where we wanted to be but I think we had much better experience doing it virtually,” says Steve. “We have a living strategy now; if anyone has to play back why we’ve picked a topic, all of us can instantly go to it and remember. There is a lot of detail in there and it is a lot richer than it would have been if we’d had two days off site. It taps you straight back into why people wanted to achieve what we have set out.” 

Employees shared their opinions and ideas, and from that we have some quite exciting thoughts about how we can keep that skunkwork, innovative muscle that is really well developed in the business.

Steve doesn’t believe one single person can lead the AMRC.

“One person can’t have all the right answers, we need a collective brain. It’s a very changing environment that we work in, at the very cutting edge of innovation. We work across every single part; whether that’s design, castings, composites, subtractive processes like machining, inspection and testing or automation - and it is not possible to do that in one person’s head. 

“Where our power lies is that we have 600-plus incredibly passionate people who know what’s going on at the leading edge of technology and what we need to make an even greater impact is a collective idea of where we’re heading. As long as everyone knows roughly where the north star is then people can make the right day-to-day decisions. 

“The feedback we’ve had around developing a new strategy is that people want to get back to that agile, start-up mentality. To do that in a bigger organisation you just need to have clarity of purpose and vision, and people who are empowered. We’ve got that in buckets.”

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