The Midlands ‘poised to become a world leader’ in engineering innovation

Clive Hickman

The Midlands is poised to become a world leader in engineering innovation, but only if it solves the longstanding productivity gap issue, according to a new report.

Investment in digital manufacturing can turn the UK, and the Midlands in particular, into a science and engineering superpower, according to Manufacturing Confidence – a report by the Midlands Manufacturing Resilience Commission (M2R)

Digital industrialisation could be worth as much as £455 billion to the UK’s economy over the next decade. In addition the UK manufacturing sector could grow by up to three per cent a year and create 175,000 jobs if the country’s industry embraces emerging technologies.

However, the report warns that the country is currently failing to capitalise on this opportunity as productivity falls behind other nations.

As manufacturing becomes increasingly automated, the UK trails behind other European nations in deploying the technology needed to increase the country’s productivity and compete in the global marketplace. For instance it takes a UK worker 40 hours to produce the same output as a German counterpart would produce in three-quarters of that time, partly because there are typically four times more robots in a German production line.

The report says that due to its ideal geographic location and its industrial experience and inherent skills levels, the Midlands has the potential to become the UK’s manufacturing engine, leading the country’s drive to world competitiveness. In recent years the region’s tech ecosystem has been growing rapidly. In Birmingham alone, more than 20 per cent of total employment comes from tech jobs. In order to build on this and secure prosperity for the region and beyond, more public sector support is required.

The chair of the Midlands Manufacturing Resilience Commission, Dr Clive Hickman, who is also chief executive of the Coventry-based Manufacturing Technology Centre, one of the High Value Manufacturing Catapults, said: “The Midlands can become the UK’s industrial engine, but only if we get appropriate investment in the manufacturing sector. By embracing emerging technologies and equipping people with the right skills, we can improve our productivity and provide prosperity not just for the Midlands, but for the UK as a whole.”

The report introduces a roadmap of concrete recommendations that can be adopted, in collaboration between local and national government, academia and the sector itself, to build manufacturing resilience in the Midlands and manufacturing in the UK. These include matching private sector investment in the Midlands at the same levels as it does for the rest of the UK, and addressing the fragmented support for manufacturing across the region.

The report also calls for financial protection for SMEs to take on bigger challenges to move from start-up to scale through an improved growth capital programme – effectively a Midlands’ Equity Fund. It also calls for the establishment of a Gigafactory in the region, drawing from the local supply chain as part of the levelling up agenda, and the creation of SME clusters in the region, creating supply chains for emerging markets such as med-tech and the renewables sector, and helping SMEs pivot away from industries that are facing decline.

Another call to action from the report is the creation of an internship programme for graduates into SMEs, to provide increased bandwidth for SME leadership, allowing senior managers to become more strategic as well as operational – working ON the business rather than just IN the business, and provide vital industrial experience for graduates when employment opportunities may be scarce.

The Commission was established to review the Midlands’ manufacturing landscape post-Covid, to contribute to the creation of a wider Midlands and UK manufacturing strategy and to develop recommendations to help build the region’s manufacturing resilience and its subsequent economic impact. Contributions have come from senior representatives from industry, academia and government.

Hickman said: “Through the recent crises we have seen the manufacturing sector respond to the needs of the hour, including through vital initiatives such as the Ventilator Challenge and the production of much needed PPE. We are proud of what we achieved, particularly in the face of arguably the greatest crisis this country has experienced in the last 70 years. But we believe there are lessons to be learned, not least in terms of how we, here in the Midlands, can work together to maximise our impact, and develop a strategy that will put our region on the map, not only nationally but also internationally.”

“Our vision must be to enable the Midlands to become a resilient manufacturing force once again, prepared for whatever shocks may be in store, whether those be political, environmental or technological,” he added.

The initiative is supported by the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who is lead sponsor of the Commission. He said: “The Midlands has a history of resilience. We are innovative and creative by nature, with a relationship with manufacturing like no other region in the country, or for that matter, the world. Yet, in recent years, we have fallen behind our competitors in terms of productivity, skills and well-paid, sustainable jobs. The concept of the innovation region has a strong resonance with our ambition for the Midlands, exemplified by programmes such as the Speed to Scale initiative which, linked with our proposals for a gigafactory, will support our drive for manufacturing resilience.”

In addition, the Commission has been endorsed by Sir John Peace, chairman of the Midlands Engine, who said: “This report highlights the need for ongoing support and a coordinated partnership vision to ensure the future of the manufacturing sector. It references many of the key barriers to growth that the Midlands Engine is currently working on: business leadership, skills, productivity, and embracing digital and new technologies.

“But the report also highlights the opportunity for the sector in our region – the opportunity to rebrand the Midlands as the Innovation Region, and to become truly world-leading in net zero, digital manufacturing and medical devices.”