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Finding the right government-backed industry scheme for you

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Government schemes for manufacturing and automation are out there, says Brian Holliday, divisional director, Industry Automation at Siemens – you just have to know where to look

Automation must be a critical focus for the UK government as we approach 2020. If we are to stand any chance of meeting our £1 trillion export target we need to invest in the technology that drives quality, productivity, and growth in our UK factories. But automation has been undervalued in British manufacturing; of course we do it, but we have chronically underinvested in this critical area of industry for decades and it is only as recent as 2010 that the machinery of government itself has recognised the potential power of robotic and autonomous systems.

Clear benefits can be derived from automating: increased productivity, reduced unit costs, improved quality and consistency, long-term operational efficiencies, and the ability to better service demand variations or lead times for customers. From a macro-economic perspective, investment in high-tech factories in Britain could reduce off shoring and support the domestic supply chains that feed the autonomous factories of the future.

Positively, there is now government support for manufacturing. There are a surprising number of schemes that could help, including tax reductions, capital investment, and technological support. In my experience, awareness levels however are woefully low. We are working with government to address this, but there are some important options that manufacturers should consider in the meantime which are thankfully well documented if you know what to look for.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) automation fund is the largest automation specific investment to date. Worth £7 million, it closed in March 2013, but will re-open for a second round soon. This will make more capital available to manufacturers wanting to invest in innovative automation and has a particular leaning towards the food and beverage sector. R&D tax credits are available to SMEs and large businesses who invest in this area if they are liable for corporation tax – a useful tax break for those wanting to research automation. Combined successfully the support potential is clear.

The Technology Strategy Board is also a body worth engaging with, no matter what size your business. It is committed to supporting innovation by small- and medium-sized enterprises, businesses with high growth potential. Such companies will be a major source of the UK's future economic growth. The tools and programmes offered can help businesses with accessing finance, knowledge and skills, finding lead customers, finding partners, and thriving in clusters. It includes financial support and access to investors in addition to supply chain partners and customers, including government contracts.

The Catapult for High Value Manufacturing is a significant but relatively new development and not well understood yet. It addresses a traditional British weakness by helping companies of all sizes incubate and develop new ideas and technologies through to commercial reality (manufactured product). Through seven centres of excellence, Catapults are well resourced to support offline developments and match companies up with the latest specific developments from a wide research base.

The Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI, often pronounced ‘am-ski’) provides funding of £120 million for research and development, skills training, and capital investment to help UK supply chains achieve world-class standards and encourage major new suppliers to locate in the UK. Bids must be collaborative and Round 4 is now open for bids. Applicants must register by 9 October and the closing date is 16 October 2013. While tricky to navigate, it may be worth investigating if it is right for you.

Then there is the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), which provides consulting support for manufacturing businesses, helping them to improve and grow. They are a hands-on group who may help streamline company processes, reduce waste or improve energy efficiency – a first port of call for the micro-business.

University Technology Colleges (UTCs) are new technical schools for 14-19 year olds and many more are planned. The relevance for manufacturers is the specific opportunity to address skills shortages and engage as an employer to help shape learning outcomes through curriculum and projects. This should mean a much improved local talent pipeline of technicians and manufacturing engineers who can help build sustainability.

The Talent Retention Solution (TRS) puts skilled individuals looking for work and companies searching for new employees in direct contact with each other. It is an industry-led, UK-wide scheme to improve skills retention in advanced manufacturing and engineering, including aerospace and defence, automotive, civil engineering, energy, and marine. There are other initiatives of note too: in July the Chancellor announced an extra £1.9 billion for research and development in science. In my view, we must ensure an appropriate level of this research activity is carried out in the fields of manufacturing and plant automation.

Enhanced capital allowances are presently available to encourage manufacturing investment too – but beware of time limitations to benefit.

The above represent just a few of the schemes and ideas available, but greater industrial technology awareness and deployment are needed if the country is to reach the productivity levels required to maintain or expand its manufacturing footprint. We need an integrated and strategic approach for our sector, a goal-based and joined-up programme of funding streams that represent clear intent and have measures of manufacturing success in support of an economy re-balanced in favour of exports.

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Brian Holliday joined Siemens in 1993 and today is divisional director for Industry Automation, a €150 million industrial products, systems and manufacturing business. He has been a Chartered Engineer since 1999 and is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

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