Creating this capability has seen fiercely competitive companies casting aside old rivalries as they rallied to the Prime Minister’s call for 30,000 new ventilator machines.
Their ability to turn automotive and aerospace factories into ventilator assembly plants has been breathtaking; and the thousands of UK companies volunteering their support has been mind-blowing – a powerful reminder of UK manufacturing’s exceptional qualities.
A manufacturing consortium – including Rolls-Royce, Airbus, BAE Systems, GKN, Siemens, Ford, McLaren, PCT, and Renishaw – working alongside smaller supply chain companies such as Ian Cocker Precision Engineering here in Sheffield, have formed a remarkable coalition under the leadership of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVM Catapult).
As members of the HVM Catapult, the AMRC and the Nuclear AMRC have been playing their part in this national response: helping the consortium hit the ground running by prepping parts as they ramp up production; helping the consortium make things better.
The AMRC machining group, famous for driving step-change improvements in manufacturing productivity, has made critical ventilator parts for the consortium to test prior to manufacture and assembly.
All against the backdrop of a rigid lockdown and strict health and safety guidance on social distancing; with our interim head of machining, Phil Kirkland, orchestrating activity on the factory shop floor from a makeshift Mission Control set up in his back bedroom.
As the recently appointed executive director of the AMRC, these past few weeks have been an exhilarating ride. As managing director at Siemens before coming to the AMRC, I had huge respect for the HVM Catapult and its role in driving innovation within UK manufacturing, supporting the growth of high-value jobs and expanding exports. These last three weeks have only magnified that respect.
If anyone was in any doubt about the importance of advanced manufacturing, this crisis has removed that doubt. Manufacturing and engineering are not just sectors of the economy: they are its essentials. Essential to healthcare; essential to clean energy; essential to our education; essential to transport and travel; essential to the food we eat, the air we breathe and, most importantly, to our ambitions to conquer another global disaster – climate change.
But Covid-19 has also exposed a grave weakness: the vulnerability of UK manufacturing to global supply chains and the often-insufficient home-grown capability. Even before the pandemic, European and American manufacturers have been concerned about the risks to their businesses. In its response to the pandemic, US automotive giant GM is having to source 419 ventilator parts from 91 tier-1 suppliers across more than 10 countries, including China. It only takes one part not to be available and it halts your entire production.
The pandemic has shown that these global supply chains are neither resilient nor sustainable. In the boom years of the 1990s we were disciples of globalisation and offshoring.
But, even before Covid-19, smart firms were realising that the world can be more like a roller coaster (SARS, Lehman Brothers and the 2008 crash and climate-induced natural disasters), with huge bumps in the road due to the vulnerability of globalised supply chains.
To counter this, we need much a more resilient and sustainable manufacturing model. This means nurturing shorter, home-grown supply chains; it means weaving digital threads through the entire manufacturing supply chain to flag pinch points before they occur; it means training and educating a highly skilled workforce; it means resource efficient manufacturing; and it means expanding the UK’s capability in steel making.
If we do this by expanding clusters of expertise across the North and the Midlands, thus levelling-up and rebalancing our economy, we will be in a much stronger position to meet global pandemics, climate change, and geopolitical threats. I believe we really can make things better.
Steve Foxley is executive director of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.
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