Tomorrow. Done better.

26 October 2022

By Steve Foxley, CEO, University of Sheffield AMRC

Article from the latest issue of the AMRC Journal

Telling the story of the AMRC’s impact has been a key part of my role since I took up the position as CEO.

It is a story that makes me glow with pride. I have done it many times now for a range of visitors, from senior national politicians to school groups. I have a few set phrases and stories to draw from ready to set loose on our guests. Each time, through conversation and the contribution of colleagues, I learn something fresh: a new way of looking at a piece of innovation; the value of the impact of a project we have completed; a sector we have undertaken some work in. It is a constant journey.

The story is rich in detail and the picture is big in impact. Data is key to the story; it forms the spine helping to make the point and serves to make comparisons. Data alone is not sufficient, but is a necessary part of our story as it conveys the potent transformation in South Yorkshire and the game changing technology shifts we have supported our partners and collaborators with. If what we do is the day-to-day push and shove of our projects, then the why is the impact that we have over a generation.

People are listening. We are repeatedly asked to contribute to lessons learned exercises by think tanks, committees and government departments. If our story was a sauce, we should bottle it.

Our recent Economic Impact Analysis report by Lichfields is a real step forward. It captures our journey to date and gives us external validation for our claims. It serves to invigorate pride in our purpose and our impact. It tells us our gross value added (GVA) impact and how we are leveraging private investment to drive greater amounts of innovation in the UK, which is a key objective for the government. It tells us more familiar elements, such as the amount of foreign direct investment we have magnetised; the number of apprentices the AMRC Training Centre has supported; and how those apprentices are having an impact in their communities.

But the report does more than describe a past done well. It sets us a challenge for the future; a tomorrow, done better. In short, how can we do more in the next ten years than we have in the last 20 years? Given the challenges we are collectively facing, anything less than doing more is not enough. Whether on productivity, net-zero or regional economic imbalance to name just a few, the role of innovation and manufacturing anchored in our places are critical parts of a progressive, future oriented solution.

A question I hear often from government officials and regional businesses alike is: given all the investment on the Advanced Manufacturing Park at Rotherham, why is South Yorkshire still in the wrong place on the productivity league tables? There are many ways of responding to that question. I could point to the smaller size of the total private sector in South Yorkshire; I could be defensive and point to the higher than national average productivity per hour on the Advanced Manufacturing Park; I could point to less than adequate transport services.

The best response though, is for it to sharpen our ambition and to redouble our efforts. There remains a significant journey ahead of us in Lancashire, Wales and South Yorkshire where we and the wider High Value Manufacturing Catapult have a continuing role to play as engines of opportunity, in particular, for how we can deepen and diversify industrial clusters.

We have a lot to be proud about. Looking backwards is important as we take our step forward, but we also learn from the past so we can be better. We can be the architects of a tomorrow that is done better.

These are the four areas which I think will help us to have that concerted impact regionally and nationally:

Supply chain resilience and productivity -

This is a core part of our strategy and a primary focus of our work on our flagship 5G Factory of the Future project,
and with Nuclear AMRC on the Zero Carbon Humber programme. Here we are helping manufacturers unlock the potential of 5G technology through our open-access testbed alongside industrial and academic leaders from the global and UK manufacturing and telecommunications sectors. With Zero Carbon Humber, we are part of a partnership looking to build the world’s first net zero industrial region. Working alongside our sister centre, we are applying our expertise in developing the UK supply chain for the low-carbon energy sector. We know we can do this: Nuclear AMRC has a brilliant track record of supporting British companies to access procurement opportunities in the nuclear energy sector. Our team in AMRC North West, through an European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) business support programme for Lancashire’s manufacturing community, has resulted in real gains. A recent impact study found that for every £1 of investment, it generated £4.51 of impact. This is a fantastic result we can build on.

Skills -

The importance of the role of the AMRC Training Centre and our work on STEM cannot be overstated. We all know of the gap for skilled people in
the manufacturing workforce, which is even more acute in particular sectors. If we take nuclear energy for example, the gulf between the demand for skilled engineers and technicians and their supply is significant, hence the importance of the work that Nuclear AMRC is doing in Derby to support Rolls-Royce Submarines with a new academy dedicated to nuclear training. It is part of its initiative to boost nuclear capability in the UK and the engineering giant will introduce an extra 200 apprenticeships each year for at least the next ten years to create a pipeline for nurturing talent.

Digital -

We know that adoption of digital technologies by a firm is a driver of productivity gains and competitiveness. Many SMEs in the UK lag behind international competitors in terms of productivity and investment in innovation. We regularly work with SMEs on their digital journey and have a strong track record supporting their decision making through analysis and testing. But there is more to do. Through our Digital Meet Manufacturing Commission we have created the AMRC Data Cloud, which will provide a resource for manufacturing firms to understand their
data and demonstrate best-of-breed technology to deliver competitiveness and productivity gains. Alongside this, we know that culture and skills within a firm are perhaps more important than the technology; to this end we are partnering with the Ey-Up Data Skills Academy which will help manufacturing technicians and engineers to learn real world data science skills.

Sustainability -

At the same time, we also know that the climate crisis points to the need for firms to move towards more sustainable, low carbon ways of operating if they are to continue to thrive. This will be the critical decade. Digitisation has a considerable role to play alongside arange of other technologies that can help firms to make the transition to digital and sustainable modes of operating, while similarly driving their productivity forwards. This is what the Enterprise Research Centre calls the ‘Triple Transition’. Our Low Carbon Smart Building Demonstrator, which utilises digital technologies to help existing facilities to make better carbon-based decisions, is a brilliant project with direct lessons for many legacy factories and shop floors to learn from.

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