Labour shadow minister calls for revamp in UK’s approach to advanced technology at HP ‘leveling up’ event

Chi Onwurah, the UK government’s Shadow Science, Research, and Innovation Minister, has called for a shake-up to the country’s attitude towards advanced manufacturing. 

On a HP webinar dedicated to examining how advanced technologies such as 3D printing can help boost the UK government’s ‘leveling up’ agenda, Onwurah highlighted the need for a revamp to the way small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and young people are encouraged to learn about and adopt them. 

During the event, the Shadow Minister was also joined by HP’s own Emilio Juarez and James Kent, as well as experts from across 3D printing, such as Make UK’s Verity Davidge and Printing Portal’s James Hawkins. Though only an hour long, the discussion generated various proposals for ways to make British manufacturing more competitive, including Onwurah’s call for greater state support for the sector. 

“Having innovation in advanced manufacturing is absolutely essential to competing on the global stage, but all regions [of the UK] don’t have the same level of investment in research and development,” explained Onwurah. “We need investments in R&D, particularly for small businesses to commercialize it, so it’s part of their manufacturing evolution, and we need that to be better distributed around the country.”

The UK's Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Chi Onwurah.
The UK’s Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Chi Onwurah. Photo via Business Insider.

‘Leveling up’ UK manufacturing  

HP’s ‘how digital manufacturing is vital for the UK’s ‘leveling up’ transformation’ webinar was organized in response to government plans to invest in growth outside of London, as a means of more evenly distributing prosperity across the UK. 

In February 2022, this policy was crystallized in the form of a Levelling Up White Paper, which went on to pledge various political changes and spending increases, designed to be implemented over the next decade. Through the document, the government has committed to “reverse the historic decline” in UK manufacturing, and “encourage the sort of innovation” in the sector seen in South Korea and Israel.

However, during HP’s event, Onwurah claimed that the UK government’s leveling up plans don’t go far enough. On the webinar, the Shadow Minister called for further investment in upskilling workers so that they can use advanced technologies, in addition to greater support for start-ups and SMEs in understanding their benefits, and where needed, state-backed pilots to find new applications for them. 

“I think there is a role for the government, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, in not only advertising and promoting the benefits of advanced technologies, but piloting them through catapults and other centers,” said Onwurah. “Tax incentives and local business support can also help, that’s what I’ve seen, particularly when it comes to supporting start-ups and new adopters.”

An engineer using a HP MultiJet Fusion 3D printer.
An engineer using a HP MultiJet Fusion 3D printer. Photo via HP.

Encouraging sustainable growth 

Following an initial discussion around the potential efficacy of current plans to level up UK manufacturing, Kent steered HP’s event towards the thorny subject of sustainability. As Director of Policy at Make UK, which represents manufacturers around the country, Davidge had a lot to say on the topic, and highlighted how the UK’s decarbonization drive is also stimulating innovation across the sector.

“The [UK government’s] net-zero ambition is quite a challenge. It’s ambitious to get to net-zero by 2050. For manufacturing, that means halving our emissions within the next eight years, but it’s also a massive opportunity,” said Davidge. “In terms of actually making those energy-efficiency improvements, around a third of our companies say they have adopted digital technologies [to do so].”

As well as helping manufacturers drive down their emissions, Davidge suggested that those which have “invested in robotics, 3D printing and the like” have been better able to “weather the storm” of the pandemic. On COVID-19, Juarez agreed that it has caused such severe supply chain disruption, that firms are increasingly turning to 3D printing to in-source parts, and he sees this trend continuing.

In particular, HP’s head of EMEA 3D printing sales identified additive manufacturing’s innate ability to enable part customization without the need for expensive tooling, as a key potential driver of advanced technology adoption across the UK, and highlighted how it was able to replace certain disrupted supply chains throughout the early part of the pandemic. 

On the subject of 3D printing’s capabilities, James Hawkins, MD of the UK-based service bureau Printing Portal, went further, saying there’s been a complete “step change” in how the technology’s used. In fact, in his closing remarks, Hawkins claimed that 3D printing has become much easier to adopt, hence as many as 80% of the parts produced by his firm are now end-use rather than being prototypes. 

“The general ease of using 3D printed parts is improving, which has meant not only adoption in consumer retail parts, but also in transportation,” concluded Hawkins. “I think in the next few years, we’re going to see an improvement and pickup of additive manufacturing, so that users can produce either spare parts, which is obviously very useful to say, the rail industry, but also in production from the outset.”

Crystal ball-gazing in 3D printing

While it’s fairly unusual for UK members of parliament to lend their insight to the debate around driving 3D printing adoption, it’s not unheard of for those with closer ties with the industry to do so. During a visit to Protolabs, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted, how “A lack of support for manufacturing is sucking the dynamism out of our economy.” HP itself has previously published a Digital Manufacturing Trends Report, through which it has sought to chart the technology’s future course, by interviewing decision-makers from across the sector.

One of the most highly-regarded of these 3D printing reports is that compiled by Wohlers Associates, a consultancy firm that now operates under ASTM International. In its latest analysis, Wohlers Report 2022, the company has highlighted how the additive manufacturing sector grew faster in 2021 than in 2020, as the pandemic began to recede. 

On occasion, bodies with a much wider remit, such as the World Economic Forum, also contribute their expertise to the discussion around 3D printing’s future, and ahead of this year’s meeting, it published a paper on the subject. This study not only predicted that 3D printing could achieve a major leap in market share very soon, but outlined the changes that need to occur before this can happen.  

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Featured image shows the UK’s Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Chi Onwurah. Photo via Business Insider.