Keith Burnett: Building a new Industrial Revolution

Factory 2050 became operational at the University of Sheffield's new  Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).
Factory 2050 became operational at the University of Sheffield's new Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).
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IMAGINE a world in which novel materials, design concepts and manufacturing technology forge new products, all in one place.

Imagine a place where material scientists sit with design engineers, as computer screens display pictures of novel materials made into new products, and robots dance around them turning the images into products for the real world.

This factory – let’s call it Factory 2050 – would look more like the Starship Enterprise or a giant Apple Store, than the usual factories you think about.

This state of the art Factory would be the core of an innovation campus where hundreds of young people from local housing estates are trained in skills of the future industrial revolution.

And this centre would enable companies small and large to increase their productivity and get orders they otherwise couldn’t get. It would be such a draw that companies that had moved their facilities outside the UK would want to settle nearby.

And now the good news. Factory 2050 already exists. And it is not in China or Silicon Valley but right here, in England where the first industrial revolution began, in Yorkshire.

Forget the images of industrial decline for a moment and think of an innovation Phoenix rising from the ashes. Factory 2050 became operational in 2016 at Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Rotherham and it is now partnering the US (Boeing), India and the Chinese space programme as well as working with Siemens and British companies such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

Yes, here in Yorkshire, we have already built the first fully configurable factory and it is open for business. It has been built with the knowledge and experience gained at the AMRC and Nuclear AMRC. These are some of the UK’s catapult centres that our Government has funded via innovate UK.

And it is British firms and young people who are feeling the knock on benefits as we also have a fully operational training centre, with 550 industry-sponsored apprentices from over a hundred companies, being given skills of the future in an R&D rich environment.

This means we have all the more reason to welcome the news that the Prime Minister is going to set aside £2bn by 2020 to strengthen the research base of the UK with a particular focus on industrial strategy, because here on the site of a former coking plant which is now a fully-fledged industrial research campus we are already rebooting British industrial suppliers and creating high-skilled jobs. Indeed, it is morning again at Orgreave.

But why do we need a new Industrial Revolution? Not just for the rundown former industrial sites of the North, but the whole of the UK? To answer that question we just need to lift our eyes and see what is happening in other economies around the world. Germany is running a healthy current account surplus, as is Japan and China. Why is that?

Because when you look at the population as a whole, per capita they work harder, and save more to invest in better gear to make even more. Why? The answers have a lot to do with regional inequalities, a lack of regeneration and technical education in struggling parts of the country and even the system of finance which supports indigenous business.

But one thing is certainly true. The governments of these nations have consistently put more of their money into research, innovation and training that benefits research. They beat us on price and quality and we buy more of their stuff than we do of theirs. They win, we lose.

This is why it really matters that we are having at least a hint of change in the Autumn Statement. If we play our cards right, we can take the advantage we have of innovative local companies and some of the best scientific research in the world and blend this with national purpose to not only rebuild our former industrial prowess but to create new opportunities to manufacture the products the world wants.

This is our challenge and we must not fail it. Our options are stark. Rely on debt and financial services as we care for an ageing population and distract ourselves with the technologies we have bought from abroad. Or build a new age of innovative manufacture. One which creates genuine wealth, products to sell and the ability to partner across the globe. One which is confident and ambitious. One which will give a job to our kids and our grandkids, and once again put wind in the sails of this great nation.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.