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Innovation in the UK: opportunities to be seized

14 September 2012

Innovation has long been heralded as the key to success for UK manufacturers. It’s a theme that the coalition government has latched on to with remarkable ease and, in areas such as research, this rhetoric is being backed with hard cash. Marc Beckers suggests what UK manufacturing should be focusing on in order to maintain this momentum.

Earlier this year, Chancellor George Osborne and science minister David Willetts unveiled a £50m investment into a research hub that hopes to capitalise on the properties of graphene, a potentially multi-purpose, super-strong ‘miracle material’.

What the government hopes to achieve through such schemes is a modern, entrepreneurial ‘innovation economy’, capitalising on the UK science and technology knowledge base and enabling Britain to compete in existing and emerging markets to boost exports, rather than stagnating as a public-sector-dominated economy. But can UK manufacturers develop an innovation culture that helps them apply radical thinking to seize the opportunities offered by technological change?

Britain clearly has the brains and the skills to compete - with world-class universities and an already strong presence in sectors such as aerospace and the digital economy - but we need to plan for long term gain by playing to our strengths.

Investment money is not in endless supply so we must identify technologies and sectors where we have a true competitive advantage and focus our energy there.  If we can maximise our advantage by building businesses in industries where we are already strong, we can sell our expertise to the fastest emerging global markets.

We also need to inspire the next generation of young engineers. There’s no point building a new and exciting innovation economy for future prosperity if the workforce is chasing other careers.  The Department for Education is currently consulting on extending the legal duty to provide independent careers guidance down to year eight and up to young people aged 16-18.

Perhaps the careers service can help identify potential and promote engineering as a profession to meet the need for engineers?  With plenty of exciting UK engineering activity in areas such as F1 there’s plenty to shout about that can motivate young people. 

Innovation requires inspiration but it also requires dedication and imagination to look at the material you are working with and put it to the most effective use. Effective innovation is difficult to achieve; it’s hard to know if you’re getting it right, and even when you think you’ve got it right it can still go wrong.

But through the successes and failures of these endeavours, innovation could ultimately be an extremely positive force for manufacturing companies in the UK.

Marc Beckers is chief executive officer of ERIKS 

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