Space is the new Frontier for Buoyant North West

Regions: North West

Above: Head of digital technology, Aparajithan Sivanathan (R), showing Lee Rowley MP (L) some of AMRC North West’s innovative technology. Credit: AMRC North West

Public sector initiatives are underpinning a new wave of private sector growth across the region.

Ian Halstead

Above: AMRC North West is a key innovation asset for the region and beyond. Credit: AMRC North West

Above: David Wood, sales director of Stealth Mask, says the new transparent Clarity facemask sets new standards in terms of protection and accessibility. Credit: Stealth Mask

It’s more than 50 years since William Shatner earned Hollywood immortality with his description of space as the final frontier. Now, the many opportunities and enormous possibilities of space as a business sector are about to come to the North West.

The UK Space Agency announced in 2019 that it would assess the viability of creating seven new regional space clusters to support the government’s desire to double its share of the global space market to 10% by 2030.

Dr Barbara Ghinelli, noted for developing the giant Harwell space cluster, and the director of cluster development at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), says the business case for a North West cluster had now been accepted.

Our space industry has trebled in size since 2010, and now generates annual revenues of almost £15bn of which a large proportion is in digital and advanced manufacturing, for which the North West has internationally recognised strengths second only to London and the South East.”

Dr Ghinelli says the formal creation of a cluster will create jobs and new skills, support new and growing companies, attract commercial investment and inspire new research and innovation.

She also points to a PwC review which suggested that numerous companies in electronics, telecoms and other sectors could pivot into the space sector to access new markets and customers.

Areas of competitive strength

Damian Waters, the CBI’s regional director for the North West, admits news of the space cluster takes him back to his childhood.

It’s almost an Industrial Revolution for the 21st Century. I’m in my 50s, and for our generation it was science-fiction, but now it’s become reality. I was talking to a local company recently who are working on the chemistry behind the latest generation of batteries which will be used in space.

There is work going on now that will ultimately enable humans to live on other planets. “It’s exciting and hugely inspiring to realise that such innovations are already here because they will create employment and wealth across different sectors in the North West. The opportunities which come from these advances will be incredibly long-lasting. We know that scientific advances which are made now for the space industry will lead to new technologies which will be embraced by other sectors.”

Waters believes the new opportunities will underline the North West’s historic manufacturing heritage; “The wealth of this region is based on manufacturing. We make innovative and world-beating products across many sectors, including aerospace, automotive, bio-pharma and engineering.

Advanced manufacturing is one of the five core sectors which we identify as a competitive strength for the North West and over the last couple of years, our manufacturing industries demonstrated tremendous sustainability.

What I don’t think is widely realised is the huge amount of goodwill which manufacturers had for each other. It’s a credit to the innovative and collegiate spirit of the large manufacturers in the North West that they were willing to help SMEs in their sector.

There’s a time to compete, but also a time to collaborate and during the pandemic was definitely a time to work together for the greater good.”

Creating opportunities for SMEs

Collaboration between public and private sector is very much on the mind of Melissa Conlon, commercial director of the new AMRC NW hub, which formally opened in March.

Funded via a £20m grant from the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP), it extends the footprint of the hugely successful AMRC developed by the University of Sheffield and has been some three years in the planning.

Like its parent, the centre targets companies in advanced manufacturing through high-tech workshop space, R&D capabilities, Grade A offices, and seminar and meeting space.

It’s the ambition of the council and the LEP to create high-value jobs in advanced manufacturing sectors and their supply chains,” says Conlon. “The original AMRC in Sheffield has created something like 10,000 jobs, so the potential here is very significant.

Sheffield has shown what can be achieved when a zone focuses on research, provides quality space and a range of support services. Companies want to be there and so do their suppliers.

However, Conlon says the centre hasn’t been set up to mirror the Sheffield model; “We’re leading on additives for the whole of the AMRC, both metallic and non-metallic and have invested heavily in advanced technology kit for companies operating in that niche.

We are also retro-fitting an old building here with the latest low-carbon technologies, so when manufacturing SMEs come here, we can demonstrate how these systems work, they can study the data and see what is possible for their company and the health and well-being of their employees.”

Even before the opening, Conlon says almost 240 companies from across the region had worked with the AMRC, and it has won ERDF funding to work with another 200.

We want to help manufacturers make a step-change in their productivity, products and processes, and to create opportunities for them to get into the supply chains of major companies.

We helped one company, for instance, which manufactures golf club heads realise how metals additives’ technology could make them more efficient and increase their product range. We’ve also worked with a large local farm to make the collection of waste heat more efficient.”

Scaling up to meet soaring demand

Not far away from the AMRC in Preston, an innovative manufacturing company which pivoted from its original niche during the pandemic continues to thrive.

During the pandemic, Stealth Mask used its decades of expertise in air filters to design, develop and manufacture face masks for NHS trusts and for overseas customers.

We spoke to hospitals and other organisations very early on, and staff found it very difficult to communicate through the large transparent masks,” recalls sales director David Wood.

We specialised in designing masks for industrial environments, which are usually noisy, so we knew we could design masks which would resolve their problem. We began designing our first Stealth Clarity mask with a clear face panel in November 2020 and once it had been trialled and approved, we began manufacturing it in the UK.”

The company then scaled-up its operations impressively when the products were approved, and demand soared.

At the height of the pandemic, we were shipping 100,000 masks a week,” says Wood. “Before Covid, almost everything we sold was for industrial customers. Now we’re still selling to companies who want to protect employees from potential contamination in a manufacturing environment, but also to customers who want the latest generation of masks for healthcare uses.

It’s obviously a very competitive sector, but we’ve always prided ourselves on innovation, and our background in advanced engineering and manufacturing has been crucial.”

The family-owned company has also successfully leveraged the reputation of the NHS to gain worldwide orders.

At the moment, probably 40% of orders come from the UK, with 30% going to the US and the rest heading to other overseas markets,” says Wood. “When countries realise our masks are approved by the NHS, they know they’ll be quality products.

We’ve just gained approval from Brazil to launch our Stealth P3 reusable half-mask there and are expecting that the NHS will very soon approve our Stealth Clarity FFP3 mask for use across all four home countries.”

Bringing discoveries to market quicker

March also saw the UK-based deep-tech innovation organisation CPI sign an MoU with the University of Liverpool, the first time it has established such a relationship with an academic institution in the North West.

CPI, a non-profit which operates within the High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), already has a base at the university’s Materials Innovation Factory (MIF).

The latter was created by a commercial partnership between the public and private sectors, which saw Unilever put in £22m, UKRI provide £11m and the university add a further £37m, to deliver 130,000 sqft of new space across four floors.

Professor Matt Reed, who later moved from Unilever to become the MIF’s strategy director, says the centre’s Innovation 4.0 model accelerates both the pace of academic discoveries and the speed at which commercial products are launched.

Partners who want to develop innovative products find our model very appealing. Manufacturers are transforming their models through AI, machine learning and virtual reality technologies, but to really drive economic growth, we need innovation along the entire value chain.

We are a blend of what a Catapult does and what a university does. We’re happy to work with any company or organisation regionally, nationally or internationally, as long as they genuinely commit to our partnership approach to research and development.” l

News in Brief

  1. Inscape Interiors has made a £350,000 investment in new machinery off the back of a growing order book. A new 15-metre through-feed CNC nesting cell and edge bander with a panel return system, as well as a complete reconfiguration of the factory layout, gives the Chorley business the potential to double its turnover.
  2. A £173m programme to accelerate life sciences innovation in Liverpool City Region has supported 11 new products to market since launching in September 2020. In its first 18 months, the iiCON: Infection Innovation Consortium has worked with more than 50 industry partners, including CN Bio, Unilever, Mologic, Sanofi, Pfizer, Newcells Biotech and Sentinel.

“The North West has internationally recognised strengths second only to London and the South East”

Above: Credit Inscape Interiors

“It’s the ambition of the council and the LEP to create high-value jobs in advanced manufacturing sectors and their supply chains”

Above and below: The MIF enables businesses to flexibly scale their R&D activity by leveraging the skills of academic experts in an environment purpose-built for materials innovation. Credit: Materials Innovation Factory