Catapults – driving UK innovation and industrial progress

Catapults – driving UK innovation and industrial progress

This week I spent time with an organisation looking to expand and to engage with small and medium businesses and encourage them to innovate and look to the future.

I was with the Manufacturing and High Value Catapult currently based within the University of Central Lancashire at Preston.

I was shown around a building embedded within the University and being fitted out with testing bays for such futuristic ideas as augmented reality, robotics and the testing of sensors for the “internet of things”. Some of the equipment is so rare that only two examples exist in the whole of Europe with one of them about to become operational at Preston.

As the name suggests ‘Catapults’ – of which there are ten – wish to ensure business and technologies can make massive gains quickly; Wikipedia defines a Catapult as ‘a ballistic device used to launch a projectile a great distance without the aid of explosive’

I already encountered the ORE or Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult during my time working for a big-six utility in Glasgow. In those days it was still being set up and the vision underpinning it evolving. It has since grown to encompass facilities in the East of Scotland, also at Blyth and more recently, become part of the renewable energy cluster proving so successful on Humberside: offshore-wind-industry-supply-chain-event

Innovation helps companies stay agile and future-proof themselves, but it can also prove challenging to those used to certain ways of working. In Glasgow the utility company was sufficiently forward-looking to promote innovative ideas and allowed qualifying staff time to pursue their ideas and cut across hierarchies to speak with anyone at any level within the organisation. With an industry as new as offshore renewables it was a great opportunity and ultimately helped drive down costs. This initiative continues and is helping renewables integrate with sister technologies such as energy storage and applying advances in digitisation. Exploring new manufacturing techniques will help maintain a world-class community where research and design interact effectively to put technology into commercial production.

I was pleased to see one of the test bays at Preston’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult was dedicated to battery technology. The embryonic layouts I saw seemed to reflect the conglomeration of smaller batteries being popularised by Tesla and which are ultimately helping solve the energy trilemma. Battery energy storage is being taken up by industries as diverse as car manufacturing to hospitality where it is being used for flexibility of supply and back- ups for hotels. In other bay testing equipment for machining, robotics, and augmented reality was being fitted out.

The Preston Catapult is poised and ready to expand. Like my own role making industry aware of supply chain opportunities in the energy transition; zero-carbon-manchester-how-get-2038, it is reaching out to SME’s and making them aware of the support and expertise it can offer to help them grow. 

The Preston Catapult, drawing upon expertise from its Sheffield-based founders plans to become an anchor tenant at a large designated site outside of the town and help draw towards it a cluster of high-value manufacturers. It is an auspicious time; industrial strategies are being combined with local enterprise partnerships to build upon and promote local strengths. Preston draws upon the manufacturing base which is so strong in the Northwest of England and is working with sister catapults ranging from the medical to offshore renewables.

Going forward catapults will support wider economic aspirations enshrined in offers such as the Northern Powerhouse and the zero carbon aspirations for both Manchester and Liverpool. With the Northwest poised to play its part in the energy transformation the prospect of dynamic practical help from these innovation-promoting centres of excellence is welcome indeed.