Last week saw the announcement that the high end car manufacturer McLaren Automotive is to open a new plant in Sheffield, to make the carbon fibre chassis assemblies for their sports cars. It was good to see that the extensive press reporting of this development (see e.g. the Guardian, the BBC and the FT (£) ) gave prominence to the role of the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in attracting this investment. The production facility will be located adjacent to the AMRC, in what’s now a growing cluster of facilities for both production and research and development in various high value manufacturing sectors, and the expansion of the AMRC’s existing Composites Research Centre will support innovation in composites manufacturing technology. The focus in some news reports on the first McLaren apprentices, who will be trained in the AMRC Training Centre, is a nice illustration of the role of the AMRC in ensuring that McLaren will have the skilled people it needs.
This investment has been a long time cooking, and I know how much work was put in by people at the AMRC, the Sheffield City Region LEP and Sheffield City Council to make it happen. A sceptic might ask, though, why is everyone getting so excited about a mere 200 new jobs? After all, a recent estimate suggested that to catch up with to the average UK performance, Sheffield City Region needed to find 70,000 new jobs, a good proportion of those being high-skilled, high paid roles.
They are right to be excited; this illustrates some of the arguments I’ve been making about the importance of manufacturing. Sheffield, like most UK cities outside London and the South East, has a productivity problem; that means the focus of industrial strategy should not in the first instance be on bringing jobs to the region, but on bringing value. An investment by company like McLaren, which operates at the technological frontier in a very high value sector, has two beneficial effects. The direct effect is that by itself it brings value into the region, and the very high productivity jobs it provides by themselves will raise the average.
But the indirect effects are potentially even more important. Sheffield, like other cities, has a problem of a very wide dispersion in productivity performance between the best firms in a sector like manufacturing, and a long tail of less productive firms. National and international evidence suggests that the gap between the technological leaders and the laggards is widening, and that this is a major ingredient of slowing productivity growth. The presence of technologically leading firms like McLaren will help the existing manufacturing business base in Sheffield to raise their game through access to more skilled people, through the expansion of shared research facilities such as AMRC, and through the demands McLaren will make on the firms that want to sell stuff to it.
The McLaren investment, then, is an exemplar of the approach to regional industrial strategy we’ve been arguing for, for example in the Sheffield City Region/Lancashire Science and Innovation Audit – Driving productivity growth through innovation in high value manufacturing. Our argument was we should develop open R&D facilities with a strong focus on translation, with very strong links both to the research base and to companies large and small, and we should focus on developing skills in a way that joined up the landscape from apprentice-level technical training of the highest quality, through degree and higher degree level education in technology and management. It’s for this reason that the University of Sheffield has created a large scale apprenticeship programme, in partnership with business and local FE colleges, through its AMRC Training Centre. This focus on innovation and skills, we argued, would have two effects – it would in itself improve the competitiveness of the existing business base, and it would attract inward investment from internationally leading companies new to the region.
But to what end is all this skill and innovation being put? Environmentally conscious observers might wonder whether making petrol-guzzling super-cars for the super-rich should be our top priority. As someone whose interest in motor-sports is close to zero, I’m the wrong person to look to for enthusiasm for fast cars. I note that for the price of the cheapest model of McLaren sports car, I could buy more than a hundred of the cars I drive (2001 Toyota Yaris). The counter-argument, though, is that it’s in these very high end cars that innovative new technologies can be introduced; then as manufacturing experience is gained costs fall and scales increase to the point where the new technologies can be more widely available. The role of Tesla in accelerating the wider uptake electric vehicles is a good example of this.
The technology McLaren will be developing is the use of composites. The driver here is reducing weight – weight is the key to fuel efficiency in both cars and aeroplanes, and carbon fibre is, for its weight, the strongest and stiffest material we know (carbon nanotubes and graphene feature the same sp2 carbon-carbon bonds, so are similar in stiffness, but could be stronger if they can be made with fewer defects, as I discussed a few years ago here). But carbon fibre composites are still not widely used outside the money-no-object domain of military aerospace; it’s expensive, both in terms of the basic materials cost, but perhaps more importantly in the cost of the manufacturing processes.
The successful and most efficient use of carbon fibre composites also needs a very different design approach. When composites engineers talk about “black metal”, they’re not talking about dubious Nordic rock bands; it’s a derogatory term for a design approach which treats the composite as if it were a metal. But composites are fundamentally anisotropic – like a three dimensional version of a textile – and those properties should be not just taken account of but exploited to use the material to its full effect (as an old illustration of this, there’s a great story in Gordon’s New Science of Strong Materials about the way Madeleine Vionnet’s invention of the bias cut for dressmaking influenced post-war British missile design).
It’s my hope, then, that McLaren’s arrival in Sheffield will make a difference to the local economy far greater than just through adding some jobs, positive though that is. It’s another major step in the revitalising of the high value manufacturing sector in our region.