Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

My vision for making NI plc a powerhouse of industry again

The former Minister for the Economy, Sir Richard Needham, whose family has roots in Co Down, says that Northern Ireland is rediscovering its manufacturing mojo. But we need to hurry if we are to get a place on board the 3D revolution

Business model: 3D design is revolutionary

B/E Aerospace manufactures aircraft seats for commercial and business jets. Its headquarters are in Wellington, Florida.

It has four factories around the world, one of them in Kilkeel. When an airline places an order, B/E head office puts out a request to tender to its four manufacturing plants around the world – three of which have considerably cheaper labour and energy costs than the Northern Ireland plant.

Whether Kilkeel gets the business depends on its ability to compete through innovative design and higher productivity. Much relies on the inputs from B/E's specialist sub-contractors and their ability to simplify the components, improve quality and reliability and reduce weight.

To do this they require the most up-to-date prototyping and design capacity. It's a tough call and getting tougher.

3D is a world changing manufacturing technology that is revolutionising industry.

It allows engineers to design and test prototypes in a variety of materials that are exact replicas of the mass manufactured final artifact.

As President Obama's lead adviser on innovation and founder of Geomagic, a 3D solution company, Ms Ping Fu says: 'The world isn't flat: it's 3D'.

Dyson appliances, for example, has spent £10m on 3D infra-structure that has led not only to multiple improvements in performance but has reduced 'time to market' and enabled Dyson to introduce a wider, smarter range of cleaners in a timescale that would have been inconceivable a decade ago.

At the dawn of the last century, Northern Ireland was one of the engineering design hubs of Europe. Whether linen machinery, ship building, fitting out, aircraft or rope industries, Belfast offered a complete bespoke top to bottom range of manufacturing solutions.

Unfortunately, those triumphs are in the distant past. From being a City with one of the highest annual patent registrations, it has become one of the lowest. 60% of those in work have found careers in the public sector comfort zone; too few have made things that matter and change the world.

But all is not lost. There is enough of a nucleus on which to build. Among the bigger boys, Shorts, Dong Energy, the born again Harland and Wolff, B-E Engineering, Wrights buses and others all show what the future could hold. But to keep up, Belfast and Northern Ireland need a vibrant, young engineering entrepreneurial base with easy access for its engineers to experiment and flourish.

The current 3D infra-structure is too fragmented and inadequate for the country's needs.

There are 3D printers in the universities, colleges and in the largest companies, but there is no cluster of equipment which can be used by trained engineers to develop their own wares and ideas.

I am proposing that we establish a Manufacturing Institute in Belfast which can act as a service provider by renting out 3D printers and offering a Regus type office infrastructure.

Start-up companies can cluster together, learn from one another, share access to markets and customers, be mentored by the great and the good and be fast-tracked to success. Such hubs already exist in London and Amsterdam and are spreading across Europe. There is no time to lose.

Twenty years ago, when I was UK Minister of Trade, I took a mission of businessmen to Colombia. It included Pat Dougan, then CEO of Mackies, the famous supplier of flax and linen machines.

As I was ending my 'keynote' speech in Medellin, Pat rushed up, dragged me off the platform, bundled me into a car and whisked me to a factory making flax sacks. It had been equipped by Mackies in the late 1940s and every piece of machinery was still working perfectly and it employed over a thousand people.

When Mackies sales office in the Springfield Road was bombed, all its records were destroyed and no-one knew of this jewel of Ulster genius in the depth of a far away country. Unfortunately, Mackies has gone the way of too many of Northern Ireland's engineering companies, but the site is still there.

What a wonderful result it would be if the rebirth of creative engineering was to happen at such an iconic place. Sir John Parker, Northern Ireland's foremost and most famous industrialist, has agreed to help, as has Eithne Wallis, the previous head of Fujitsu Europe.

Queen's University is keen to participate, as is the local Fab Lab, a 3D printing offshoot of America's MIT which has a small presence in Derry and Belfast.

What is required now is enthusiastic support from politicians, civil servants and business people. I do not believe that Northern Ireland's young engineers are any less capable, creative, competitive or determined than their grand and great-grandparents. Why should they have to leave to succeed? Let Northern Ireland and Belfast give them the opportunity to prove themselves to their forefathers and mothers!

3D means that engineers can design and test prototypes that are exact replicas of the final artifact

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