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Opinion: Scotland must seize huge manufacturing opportunity

Last month saw the official opening of the hugely impressive flagship building for the National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (NMIS), representing around £40 million of an overall £75m investment for the future of both manufacturing in Scotland and the benefits our sector can bring to wider society.

Impression of new National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (Image: National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland)

The teams working within NMIS would rightly remind us that as important as the headquarter facility is, NMIS has in fact been operating since 2019, delivering more than 150 research and development projects to over 140 organisations.


A key part of the overall offer is the Manufacturing Skills Academy, which in that time has upskilled or reskilled over 1,300 people, placed more than 80 graduate trainees in manufacturing and supported more than 100 internships to deliver the industry ready graduates needed.


It's not the only physical building in the NMIS group – the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) got there first and is just two miles away – and it is only one part of a wider physical and virtual balance to ensure that the benefits reach all of the N in NMIS, not just an area around this locus.


But it is massively important to its mission to drive broader innovation, digitalisation and efficiency in all that we aspire to manufacture now and in the future.


To do that, the facility as I see it enables four key functions: a Digital Factory demonstrator; a base and focus for the Manufacturing Skills Academy; a home in the near future for the specialist Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC); and finally, the very highest quality publicly accessible collaboration space for industry.


The digital factory is the facility’s USP, featuring a variety of technology zones dedicated to growth areas and not replicated elsewhere in Scotland.


The provision of cyber-physical demonstrators merged with an Industrial Internet of Things connected shop floor will help manufacturers see first-hand the benefits and possibilities these technologies can bring, and a specific support hub embracing circular principles will help extend the life of their products and systems. Efficiency gains are at the heart of these improvements, aiding net-zero ambitions that match the building’s own carbon neutral operational status from day one.


For the skills academy, it has already achieved significant success in its outreach, and the provision of digital learning on demand, often free at the point of use, has been a key part of ensuring that its benefits are location agnostic, and the same geographical principle has carried over to the graduate trainees and internships it has enabled. Having the team in such an outstanding new work environment will only boost their focus and cohesion.


Lightweighting is on the wish list of almost every engineered system, bringing reduced material use, energy efficiency and improved performance to name just a few benefits, and the LMC has also been operating since the inception of NMIS.


The benefits of applying this technology cuts across many sectors, but transportation and renewable energy are two examples near the top of the list for obvious societal importance.


The final pillar of providing top quality collaborative space for industry helps deliver on key aims for NMIS: innovation, efficiency and growth.


The reasons for the UK’s poor showing in productivity tables compared to its European neighbours are multiple, but it’s commonly pointed out that our similar standing in the adoption of open innovation and genuinely collaborative development is no coincidence.


It’s no surprise then that the quality of such space in Scotland has seen a massive improvement in the last decade, driven by universities, colleges and local authorities prioritising investment in facilities, and rather than question whether we need another one we would be better asking where next?


More than anything, the opening of NMIS headquarters finishes the last piece of infrastructure and clears the path for the organisation to focus on the road ahead and its place in transforming manufacturing for Scotland.


What we need today to put Scotland back on the map as a global centre of excellence in manufacturing may not be what we need tomorrow, so the ability to adapt and adopt will be critical to complementing this greater strategic focus on engineering and manufacturing for Scotland.


They, like the companies they will support, will face challenges ahead in how they help close skills gaps, convince for the need to change the shape of our investment curve, and make sure that the benefits they can bring are open and attractive to all in the sector.


Essential to that will be finding a way to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are drawn in and then quickly find compelling value to take up the benefits on offer. That’s no easy task given how stretched SME organisations typically are, but as they represent over 99% of sector companies, successful uptake by SMEs is perhaps its most important measure of success.


About the Author: Paul Sheerin is the chief executive of Scottish Engineering.


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