Manufacturing in Wales: What can academia and industry do together?

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James Davies, Executive Chairman, Industry Wales

Barry Liles, OBE, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Wales Trinity Saint David 

The voice of industry – James Davies, Industry Wales

There are concerns that there have been several support mechanisms for manufacturing that have been EU funded, and obviously that will now change. We talk about continuous improvement but we ourselves must learn lessons about how we can improve the support, engagement, and enablement landscape itself. I am extremely worried that with the EU funding cliff face coming at some point, businesses may not have appreciated that these support mechanisms will also change. Businesses really do not want to be confused by the different enablers and support available and this is where we need to find continuity. Continuity on the different programmes, as well as learning lessons how we can improve them.   

Partnership and clustering are good but in the management of change we are worried about transition and how we may lose skills, resources, and enablement in the short term. How can we find a smoother transition to ensure that we have continuity on the skills, supply chain, innovation, and the support schemes we are used to? We improve, simplify, digitise and retain the structures for that support and enablement mechanisms. MADE Cymru at University of Wales Trinity Saint David is a clear support mechanism that we want to work with to help manufacturers see where the process is, what the current state is, what they need to take out as waste and what they need to optimise, automate, or digitise.  

We all share the recognition that we need to work together as academia, as industry, as government – at regional, local, and national level. Part of that is having a common vision and a common language. We often do not understand the language of the funding mechanisms as it is too confusing. If we can find a common narrative and a common language to communicate what we want as industry, this will be a huge step forward. We want these support mechanisms, we want these skills, we want these mid-career skills activities – we can provide a demand, but the response must be consistent and in the right framework. Qualifications have had all the focus in the past and the funding has been linked to achieving these qualifications. But what we really need is employer recognised competencies that we can put provision in for. It doesn’t mean we ignore qualifications, but we build them up differently. We can focus on that together.  

A major manufacturing operation shutting down tends to have employees with high operating skills trained in a corporate culture, but the skills are not transferable. How do you take someone who has worked at an organisation for 20 years but doesn’t have that paperwork to move to a different company? Let’s focus on fast-track apprenticeships, within a working environment, rather than the employee having to come out of work to take a different route. 

The apprentice degree scheme is another vital pathway we have for SMEs in Wales. Industry is responsible for saying they want more type of that graduate or apprenticeship degree. They can shape how we educate and provide skills to future and current employees 

We are trying to develop a landscape where we all come together. During Covid, there were companies that had nothing to do with health, PPE, or medical devices but they had core capabilities in people, manufacturing processes and design capabilities. They worked with universities, testing labs, procurement, and new suppliers. They came together in a cluster and came up with solutions far faster than if they had done it alone. Within 3 months they were producing items that were approved by NHS Wales. Prior to this there had been a culture where we tended to keep ourselves to ourselves or were worried about IP. In future we need more of these collaborations. Funding structures will demand it but fundamentally we must learn from each other.  

One of the major changes we will make is to create more regional clusters around challenges such as net zero homes using carbon neutral materials we have around us. Let’s take an extreme example, how about taking fleece or wool to make insulation but looking at how we make it competitive via industrial processing. Something with zero value today that is carbon resilient will ensure it is competitive and will ensure all our homes are using that rather than artificial material that we can’t recycle.  

These challenges will be resolved by groups of people working together – industry and academia. Let’s work on Wales 4.0 – it is a continuous improvement process – a programme in which we are joined together and learning together. Collaboration and partnership has to happen organically and naturally in the future. 

Courses should be created that have 80% consistent content, skills, activities, and language with the remaining 20% tuned to the different sectors. It will make employees more resilient with increased transferable skills. Industry has to stop asking for their own qualifications. We can’t keep sector specific learning – that is waste. 80% must be consistent or common and 20% tuned. 

The voice of academia – Barry Liles, University of Wales Trinity Saint David 

The key is continuity. There have always been fits and starts of funding with providers paddling furiously to get outcomes and then the funding declines and the teams are let go – there’s no consistency and continuity. We need that long term vision about where this funding is coming from. We need high level skills and to set a platform for this continuity – to smooth out that journey we have been having over the years with EU funding. Employer led action is critical.

We are very passionate about degree apprenticeships at UWTSD. We sat down with employers, and they put down on the table what they required and that is reflected in the success of the programme and the large numbers coming through. Projects such as MADE Cymru are having an impact within the industry because we listened, learned, developed and most importantly, we delivered in partnership. We do not stand alone as we are effectively part of those supply chains in industries delivering those projects. 

From UWTSD’s point of view, we have seen there needs to be a cultural shift. Traditionally we work in silos and don’t share. We are changing this and are being open and honest for the greater good. We want to change that mindset in other organisations too. If we get rid of silos, we can work together for economic advantage and make that positive impact on a supply chain. All of these are cultural issues and public sector, private sector and higher education can’t do its own cultural thinking. Let’s not be fragmented. Instead, let’s go on a common journey through these issues so we are learning with each other. We can change attitudes by academia, public sector and industry working in partnership. 

I am very heartened by what I have seen recently with links to partnership working, localisation and social clauses being included in procurement and funding applications – we just need to keep expanding on this. 

This article is taken from a series of webinars in a three-day industry summit organised by MADE Cymru and University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) in June 2021. MADE Cymru is an EU funded (via Welsh Government) initiative that seeks to support and boost manufacturers in Wales via upskilling programmes and R&D. Find out more www.madecymru.co.uk or email one of the team at [email protected]