CEO blog: Britain’s manufacturing past and what it means now

I’ve been challenged twice this week on whether the market failure that the Catapult programme was set up to fix, is a modern phenomenon.

By market failure I mean the fact that the UK is a very inventive nation, but somehow we fail to follow through and commercialise these inventions in a way that other nations seem able to do.

So when did we lose our way? If we look back in time to the points where the UK was prolific in this respect, you alight first of all in Victorian times where the UK led the industrial revolution. In that era, fuelled by the great self-confidence of the time, it was normal for investors to embark on high technical risk ventures in pursuit of wealth. Not all of these ventures were successful, but, importantly, there was a readiness to take the risk. I’ve just finished reading a short biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and it surprised me to learn that many of the companies that were set up to fund his technological advances went bust!

Other times when the UK was prolific in the realisation of technology, were in the theatre of war, where the fundamental security of the nation prioritised the development of new technology above all else (think radar and jet engines), and where the government stepped in with funding to realise these inventions in very short timeframes.

Fast forward to today and we find ourselves in a more regulated and controlled environment where investment decisions about new technology have more scrutiny and more stakeholders. The analysis of risk, that accompanies this, makes us by nature, more risk averse, and this process has led to a steady attrition of the nation’s readiness to take technical risk and to a consequential loss of technological self-confidence.

Addressing this issue is exactly why the Catapult programme was set up; to use publicly funded facilities and resources to help to share in the risk, with industry, to bring new technologies to market.

I’m discussing this further today with Jeremy Cliffe from the Economist who is joining me at one of the HVM Catapult centres, the Manufacturing Technology Centre at Ansty. We’ll be showing Jeremy some of the world class manufacturing technologies that we are working on at MTC accompanied by MTC’s Chief Executive Clive Hickman.

These technologies are just some examples of the wide range of capabilities that we have in the HVMC which spans from raw material processing though to finished product assembly.

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