The meeting on “The Third Industrial Revolution – Industrial Policy and Disruptive Technologies” took place at the House of Lords yesterday. Committee Room G was packed – standing room only for the late arrivals (like me!). It was run by POST – the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology. On their website, they say that POST is “Parliament's in-house source of independent, balanced and accessible analysis of public policy issues related to science and technology”.
Their website advertised the meeting as follows: “POST and the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group are hosting a seminar to discuss the relationship between Government policy and cutting-edge technologies that are soon to change the face of manufacturing in the UK.
“More so than other parts of the UK economy, manufacturing is often associated – in the minds of Government, MPs, the public – with history: traditions, techniques and craftsmanship originating in our Victorian industrial past. It is often argued that barriers to growth in our manufacturing sector come from this association with the past, an association that is outdated, misguided, and potentially damaging.
“Much UK manufacturing is now characterised by innovation: the use of cutting edge technologies, ultra-modern and efficient processes, and new kinds of business models that give companies competitive advantage and help bring growth to the wider economy. On the immediate horizon are a number of technologies that are set to change the face of UK manufacturing for good and will fundamentally change the kinds of supportive policy landscapes that Government needs to provide for industry.
“At this APMG/POST meeting, we will be highlighting just what these technologies are, how they are applicable across sectors, and question whether or not Government policy is keeping up with the pace of change in industry. We will also be launching the POSTNote on Advanced Manufacturing, which will highlight just how close we are to adopting these new kinds of processes and techniques across sectors.”
- Fergus Harradence, Deputy Director of Innovation Policy, BIS
- Clive Hickman, Chief Executive, Manufacturing Technology Centre
- Richard Hague, Director, EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing
- Phil Goodier, CEO, Plaxica Limited”
Fergus Harradence spoke so quietly that I could not make out what he was saying (I missed the start of his talk anyway, but it made little difference once I was there). As far as I could tell, BIS was saying that it could not really get involved in affecting the market (what are the catapults for if not to change things?) but that the measures it had taken were helping. If you are confused, so was I.
Clive Hickman’s talk was mostly about how well his catapult was doing, the great things that would come out of it and how much of the work was with the SME sector. I didn’t ask the question (I was keeping my gunpowder dry for the Richard Hague talk) but I wondered, of the percentage relating to SMEs – I don’t remember the exact figure – how much of that was with the MEs and how much with the SEs? One of my bugbears is the casual way in which statisticians, politicians and indeed everyone else lumps Small companies (up to 50 employees) with Medium-sized ones (up to 250 employees) – there are other metrics but these will do for now. There is, in my experience, a huge difference in the capability of medium-sized companies and small ones. It is about time that we started reflecting that differentiation. I am prepared to eat my hat if the majority of those mentioned by Clive Hickman are small companies rather than medium ones. By the way, I own no hat so I would have to go out and buy one. If I lose the argument, I will make sure that I buy one made of marzipan! But I don’t think that will be necessary.
Richard Hague spoke about AM and 3DP, my area and my favourite topic of conversation. Richard now uses the terms Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing interchangeably. I found that interesting because the distinction I make is that AM relates to the industrial sector and expensive machines whereas 3D Printing applies to the low cost arena, machines under, say, £2,000. However, perhaps he is able to use them interchangeably because, when I spoke to him afterwards and asked what the AM catapult could do for my company (A1 designs and sells equipment at the low cost end of the spectrum – low cost but high value!!), the answer was “nothing”. His terms of engagement only apply to high end equipment. Why? This strikes me as crazy. My expectation is that the market for low cost equipment will grow to a far bigger global opportunity than the industrial end.
Richard’s talk was constrained by too many slides and too much to say, but all of it was cogent and relevant and accurate. There was nothing new there for me but then I am steeped in the technologies. Richard gave a good summary of where it had come from and where it was going; not as a replacement for traditional methods but as an extension. Even so, it is already proving to be disruptive and I believe (like Richard) that the disruption will grow. It was good that he had arranged for a 3D printer to be on show at the back of the room, but a shame that he had brought an American product with him rather than a UK one – like my company’s, for example.
The last talk was from Phil Goodier who talked very interestingly about his company Plaxica, how it was spun out of UCL and how it now operates in a symbiotic relationship with its relevant catapult. A great story and a great company, but not necessarily typical of start ups in general, nor of the sort of issues that start ups face. I know, because a little while ago, my company was a start up!
I asked a question from the back of the room. Actually, I don’t think there was a question mark attached to what I said, so a ‘statement’ might be a more appropriate use of English. One theme that had come up from every speaker (and almost every questioner from the floor of the room) was that of skills, and how poorly we are doing in the UK (the speaker from BIS was perhaps more complacent than the rest of us on this topic). I spoke with my two hats on.
Firstly as Chairman of LASER, the London And South-East Manufacturing Alliance. I informed the room that manufacturers had given up on waiting for government (of whatever political persuasion) to help raise the profile of manufacturing, particularly at school level; that they were very concerned about where future technicians and engineers were going to come from and to that end had decided that it was time for them to take direct action. What we are doing within LASER is working with manufacturers in the region and creating a climate of collaboration whereby all parties with an interest in manufacturing (including such organisations as Semta, MAS, BIS, the EEF, CEME, the LCCI and so on) can work together with manufacturers to help build a step change in activity, in support, in success and in visibility. The number one issue for our manufacturers is without doubt that of skills. We will do what we can but government help and support is still necessary, preferably if it is bottom up rather than top down.
My second hat is that of CEO of A1 Technologies, the only company in the UK, and indeed the world, with a low cost 3D printer designed specifically for the education market. At A1, we are aware of just how important and disruptive 3D printing is going to be in the future, and how important it is for kids to be aware of it and exposed to it in school. But most speakers on 3D printing, and Richard Hague was no exception, miss a key point. Without 3D design, there is no point having a 3D printer. Almost all 3D designs to date (at least those that can be printed) are made using 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design). In schools, 3D CAD is accessible to just a small number of pupils, sometimes at KS3 (11-14 years), usually at KS4 (14-16 years), and then only to those studying Design & Technology. 3D CAD tends to be dominated by boys as it is an engineering product which does not excite girls in the same way. 3D CAD is also difficult for teachers to use and teach as it needs a lot of training and frequent use to stay on top of what it can do. Which is a lot, and it is great for those who master it and for the right applications.
For younger kids, and for those not studying D&T, for girls and for those who want to be more creative and less structural, and finally for those who are taught 3D CAD but just don’t get on with it, there is a huge vacuum. That is why at A1 we bring low cost quick-to-learn and easy-to-use design products to schools, so that everyone can get involved in design and then also use 3D printers. The pupils love it, and it not just interests them, it excites, enthuses and motivates them. One comment at this event was that kids need to be shown that engineering and manufacturing are viable, exciting and profitable career choices. This is true. At the same time, if schools use our type of equipment, the youngsters are going to be interested because they find it exciting. That is the major hurdle to overcome, and we are showing that it can be done.
But no, I only spoke for about 3 minutes and I did not get all those messages into my brief talk, but that is what I might have said had I had the time. I did manage to get some of these messages across. After the session ended, I discovered that many of the great and the good were there. Some I already knew, like Richard Hague and Phil Reeves, both steeped in 3D printing, as well as Bill O’Neill, now a professor at Cambridge and very active both within the Engineering Department and the IfM, the Institute for Manufacturing, with a keen interest in motivating interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in the young, and a great proselytiser of 3D printing. My brief talk (rant?) apparently interested a number of people who came up to discuss it with me at the end. They included Lord Jenkin of Rodin, who is president of the Foundation for Science and Technology, and also Philip Greenish, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Overall the session was interesting, and the discussions afterwards even more so, but there is still a difference between government perception of what is happening and the reality. My perception is that they believe they are achieving more than is actually the case. And finally, I was not the only person saying that contact between manufacturing and schools (down to the primary level) is essential, and that 3D printers, thanks to both their inherent benefits and their low cost, are a great way of introducing kids to the world of design and manufacture; yet there was no one in the room from the Department for Education. And that was a real shame.
AUTHOR : Martin Stevens
CEO, A1 Technologies Ltd http://www.a1-tech.co.uk/
Chairman, LASER (London And South-East Region Manufacturing Alliance)