LEP Column: ‘Innovation District’ can be trailblazer for the industry

We live in a global economy. To compete we invest heavily in skills, infrastructure, innovation and growth sectors. Bruce Katz, US expert and adviser to Obama on the competitiveness of cities, recently visited Sheffield City Region to take a look at the results of our approach.

Opportunities: The £43m Factory 2050 is currently under construction and will be the latest addition to the Sheffield City Regions innovation anchors.

It was clear to him that the critical mass of activity on the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP) and Sheffield Business Park (SBP) represents a game-changing opportunity to create an ‘Innovation District’, an area where R&D expertise and industry cluster together commercialising new techniques and ideas through spin-outs and start-ups.

So what makes the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District unique?

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The core philosophy is that it is necessary not just to move with the times, but to change them. The University of Sheffield’s flagship cluster of R&D facilities, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), is achieving this by resolving advanced manufacturing problems for global brands like Boeing, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems.

The AMRC is capable of achieving major reductions in the time it takes to machine vital aerospace components, demonstrating this when it helped Messier Dowty to win the contract to supply the landing gear for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, the first time such an order had been won by a company outside the USA.

Rolls-Royce opened their new £110m advanced blade casting facility next to the AMRC last month, cementing the relationship between industry and R&D.

Responding to new markets is vital. The civil nuclear energy industry is estimated at £60bn in both the managing of existing nuclear decommissioning and securing the next generation of nuclear energy.

There is increasing focus on small modular reactors (SMRs) which have great benefits in safety, the potential to reduce costs of production and to ‘plug and play’ on existing sites such as Sellafield. The Nuclear AMRC and AMRC facilities along with member companies already have the capability to design and manufacture the first prototypes of these products, given enabling investment by the UK.

The latest addition to the City Region’s ‘innovation anchors’ is the £43m Factory 2050, under construction at the SBP. This building will combine a range of technologies, including advanced robotics, flexible automation, unmanned workspace, plug-and-play robotics, 3D printing from flexible automated systems, man-machine interfaces, and new programming and training tools.

Interest is at a peak as last week a sold-out Factory 2050 conference took place featuring presentations by leading industry figures and world class academics. It is hoped the futuristic design will inspire schoolchildren considering a career in engineering.

The looming shortage of skilled engineers is seen as a major obstacle to restoring the UK’s economic vibrancy. The award-winning University of Sheffield AMRC Training Centre is currently training more than 400 first and second-year apprentices. By working in partnership with local manufacturing companies students gain the best in practical and academic training.

All this activity means demand for property is strong. Harworth Estates, developer and masterplanner of the AMP Enterprise Zone site at the heart of the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, built three industrial units in 2014 on behalf of Rotherham Council for advanced manufacturing firms. One has already been sold to X-Cel Superturn and the remaining units are under offer. Maher, supplier of high performance alloys, and Nikken Kosakusho Europe, supplier of precision engineering products, are building units.

Such strong credentials have won the support of Government. In the Autumn Statement 2014 it was announced there would be a £235m investment to create the Sir Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials. The Sheffield wing of the institute, co-located with the AMRC High Value Manufacturing Catapult, focuses on materials for advanced manufacturing, particularly powder-based manufacturing.

Whilst huge progress has been made, there is still work to be done to maximise the opportunities opening up. To optimise the City Region’s contribution to the Northern Powerhouse we need cross-party support to invest more in infrastructure to better connect the Innovation District to transport networks.

Investment in the nuclear technology capability here will enable the UK to secure huge investments in civil nuclear energy. It is crucial we continue to promote and grow this game-changing opportunity to be UK’s first ‘Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District’ ensuring economic growth.

Success of technology centre

The Advanced Technology Centre is a vital part of the Innovation District and has proved a real success with small to medium start-up businesses over the past three years, proving all sizes of business can succeed here.

The current two buildings have been close to full capacity for the past 12 months.

To meet the increasing demand, a new £4.5m facility is currently under construction which will provide vital extra workspace for companies wanting to move or expand at the site and space for up to 200 more high-quality jobs.

It is due to open in September this year.