David Richards: Sheffield’s economy ready to fly as Steel City shows modern mettle

A new Boeing factory is among Sheffield's recent success stories.
A new Boeing factory is among Sheffield's recent success stories.
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The UK is in the midst of the “fourth industrial” revolution and at the forefront of this are the Northern regions. We rightly celebrate London’s success as a leading city for tech innovation in the UK, with 36 of the “unicorn” start-ups created in the UK since 1990 being housed in the capital. But all corners of the nation are playing their part.

Sheffield is undoubtedly a key player in this revolution – a city on the brink of an industrial renaissance, repositioning itself as an international centre for the aerospace, automotive and software industries. Home to cutting-edge research and manufacturing centres, innovative businesses and a pipeline of talent, there was nowhere better for Boeing – one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers – to open its first manufacturing site in Europe last month.

Sheffield has the talent, heritage and – through businesses such as Rolls-Royce, WANdisco and now Boeing – international connections that will supercharge its growth and reinforce Sheffield as a pioneering city in the development of advanced software and manufacturing. Boeing joins a number of successful companies in the city that are attracting investment, boosting the city’s global reputation, and changing the employment landscape of Sheffield.

Famously at the forefront of the first industrial revolution, history is repeating itself in South Yorkshire. Although, this time it is electrical engineering and computer code, rather than coal and steel, that are shaping Sheffield’s economic future.

The city is playing a vital role in pioneering the development of advanced software and manufacturing, adding further fuel to the “Northern Powerhouse”. The opening of Boeing’s new factory serves as a reminder that the initiative to revitalise the north of England’s economy is alive and well. In a further indication that South Yorkshire’s move towards an industrial renaissance is accelerating, British supercar company McLaren has just opened a factory in the region.

Even before Sheffield’s recent arrivals, like-minded businesses have been forming a new technology cluster, re-establishing the city as a global industrial force. The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), established in 2001 by Boeing itself and the University of Sheffield, is a network of world-leading manufacturing research and innovation centres that enables companies of any size, including BAE systems and Airbus, to become more competitive.

Sheffield is also playing a crucial role in achieving the UK’s ambitious nuclear power targets. The AMRC is central to the UK’s delivery of the nuclear sector deal, having recently unveiled its new Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. Not only are these facilities key to the Government’s strategy to boost productivity, they are likely to draw further international investment to the region.

Last year saw the opening of Factory 2050, the UK’s first fully reconfigurable assembly and component manufacturing facility for collaborative research. Such research spaces facilitate the collaboration between companies varying vastly in scale, all in the name of furthering manufacturing technology for the benefit of high-value sectors across the world.

Sheffield’s international role in the automotive, aerospace, nuclear and software industries must be carefully nurtured in light of Britain’s imminent exit from the European Union. Factory 2050 was partially funded by the European Regional Development Fund, which underlines how the region has benefited from EU membership and is recognition for Sheffield’s potential and resulting growth.

In the instance of a no-deal Brexit, rumours of Rolls-Royce stockpiling parts and Airbus threatening its exit from the UK have surfaced. However, whilst some fear the implications of a no-deal Brexit, others regard Boeing’s choice of location in Sheffield as a sign of confidence from the international company in UK’s post-Brexit landscape.

Northern regions are leading the way in other industries too. With Channel 4’s national HQ moving to Leeds, the North is firmly placing itself on the map as a hub for creativity, innovation and talent, proving there is more to the UK than its capital city.

Having demonstrated its potential in various industries, the Government would be misguided not to increase support to Sheffield and its businesses. So long as the Government implements policies that will support the continuation of cutting-edge research and innovation in the region, Sheffield can be a leading light on the global stage across all industries after Brexit.

The future looks bright for the region. It’s now up to the Government to show support for the UK’s most prosperous regional cities, of which Sheffield certainly is one.

David Richards is chief executive officer of WANdisco – a software company based in Sheffield and California.