How manufacturers can access innovation

Karen French

By James Peel and Karen French from Squire Patton Boggs

Manufacturers are aware of industry 4.0, digital supply chains and smart manufacturing, the opportunities for harnessing innovation are clear and a 2017 report from the World Economic Forum identified a US$100 trillion opportunity for industry through the adoption of digital technology. However, what is less well known is the depth of skill and resources available in the region’s well-established universities that manufacturers can benefit from as they seek to grow their businesses.

James Peel

Many universities have seen the future as harnessing the concentration of talent, innovation and knowledge available to them, and making it accessible to industry. Whilst previously bunkered down in research sections of departments, many universities have invested heavily in building and developing innovation centres and making them much more accessible to manufacturers.

Recent examples include the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (2014 – University of Huddersfield), Nexus (2019 – University of Leeds), UMIC (University of Manchester) and Engineering Innovation Centre (EIC) (University of Central Lancashire – due to open 2019). Many manufacturers might assume these facilities are purely for spin-outs and start-ups, but they have a lot to offer even established manufacturers.

Each has its own specific focus and skill areas (e.g. 3M at Huddersfield: supply chain innovation, Nexus: logistics, EIC: engineering). The innovation centres are also acting as hubs for different types of advice from HR, legal, PR, marketing, cybersecurity, business consultancy, import and export, funding and mentoring. This can include accessing advice ranging from protecting intellectual property to obtaining equity investment, to preparing accounts and corporate documents. Chelsea Hardy, an investment manager at Nexus, explains that the benefits to manufacturers are three-fold: “Manufacturers have access to interdisciplinary research and innovation, skills and expertise and equipment.”

A common misconception is that this new breed of university innovation is driven by academics, but they are staffed by people who have worked for many years in the manufacturing sector.

Steve Gregory, who is Head of Regional Engagement at 3M in Huddersfield, has over 25 years’ experience in the manufacturing sector, working with both SMEs and large-scale manufacturers. He would like to see more manufacturers contact him at the Business Engagement Centre as: “often a brief phone call can be enough to unlock opportunities and fresh perspective and ideas”.

These innovation centres are also gateways into the university and can be utilised by manufacturers to recruit talent to drive further innovation and development. Manufacturers have funded research and development in universities in order to develop bespoke solutions for their businesses. This sometimes involves locating entire research and development teams within such centres. Nexus is working with start-ups, SMEs and corporates with a strong focus on R&D that want to connect to leading skills and expertise. This can be advantageous to manufacturers whose location might be a hurdle to recruitment, and it can also allow easy access into other parts of a university, such as its business school, etc.

There are also other opportunities for manufacturers via the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme which helps businesses in the UK to innovate and grow. It does this by linking them with an academic or research organisation and a graduate. A KTP enables a business to bring in new skills and the latest academic thinking to deliver a specific, strategic innovation project through a knowledge-based partnership. The university partner will help to recruit a suitable graduate, known as an Associate. The university acts as the employer of the graduate, who then works at the company for the duration (12 – 36 months, depending on what the project is and the needs of the business).

Not only is there easy access to personnel, there is also access to state-of-the-art equipment and cutting-edge technology, which is unavailable to many consultants and would necessitate significant capital expenditure by businesses. The EIC is a £50 million investment, with funding from both the ERDF and the Local Growth Deal. According to Iain Martin, project manager of the EIC, there is an unrivalled opportunity for manufacturers to utilise such resources which may otherwise be out of reach.

Many innovation centres are already thinking in terms of much bigger scale and geographical reach in the coming years and, therefore, they offer not only a resource to manufacturers’ current needs, but also an exciting glimpse of increasing opportunities to grow as part of the Northern Powerhouse.

In speaking to many innovation centres, they want to hear from more manufacturers. In addition to bringing together teaching, research and investment, the centres also provide a forum for greater collaboration which, in turn, can open up significant opportunity for manufacturers across the North. Innovation centres appear to be an untapped, but potentially very valuable resource.