Written Evidence Submitted by the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC)

(SPA0041)

 

 

The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) is one of seven High Value Manufacturing Catapult Innovation centres. Based in the heart of the West Midlands manufacturing cluster, it provides world-leading technology, facilities, equipment and experts to organisations, helping them to turn cutting-edge ideas into cost-effective products and enabling the UK to become a manufacturing hub with the latest innovative technologies.

A leader in industrial transformation through translation of research, the MTC facilitate the progression of an idea from academic research and prepare it for industry adoption (bridging the commercial “valley of death”). Our expertise spans across Advanced Manufacturing (including Additive Manufacturing - AM), Digital Engineering, Robotics and Automation (RAS), and supply chain development.

 

The MTC supports the industrial capabilities of a wide range of sectors. These include some of the UK’s innovation ‘crown jewels’ including Space, Defence, Aerospace, Energy and Construction. It supports businesses, helping to improve speed to scale and driving growth within industrial sectors by aligning manufacturing technology development activities to align with and enable industrial sector growth.

For example, the MTC collaborates with sector leaders such as NASA, ESA, and the Satellite Applications Catapult[1]  to understand the broader Space sector ambitions and creates technology roadmaps in support. Furthermore, the MTC holds a recognised status as the UK National Centre for Additive Manufacturing (NCAM), and the European Space Agency Additive Manufacturing Benchmarking Centre (AMBC) [2].

 

Alongside its sites and technology, the MTC is focused on ensuring Britain has the skills needed to reach its manufacturing potential. It has built an extensive apprenticeship programme and was a top 100 apprenticeship employer in 2020 according to the Department for Education.[3]

 

Document Content and Reference

 

1              UK Space Strategy Considerations

1.1              Opportunities presented by the space industry

1.2              Weaknesses in UK Upstream and On-Orbit space activity

2              Critical Success Factors: Big Ideas to enable Big Growth

2.1              Space Sustainability

2.2              Space Manufacturing Clusters

2.3              Future skills

2.4              Encouraging new market entrants

3              The MTC’s relevant partnerships and experience

1         UK Space Strategy Considerations

A UK Space Strategy must focus on laying the foundations that can underpin, and guarantee, the UK’s future success in the space sector. This means that any strategy should be wide reaching, driving collaboration and partnerships from across business, industry, academia and central Government. It should ideally bring together themes from across other initiatives and industrial sectors such as the Innovation Strategy and the Integrated Review. Specifically a UK Space Strategy should look at four things to position the UK as a world leader:
 

1.       Ensuring the UK has an appropriate skills base;

2.       Enhancing the UK’s position to drive, develop and adopt new technologies;

3.       Supporting  the industrial transformational activities required to pivot existing capability into the space sector creating new, and resilient supply chains;

4.       Refreshing policy and regulatory challenges to align with and encourage the adoption of state of the art manufacturing capability that will drive UK space sector step changes.

 

1.1       Opportunities presented by the space industry

There are opportunities for the UK to use the space sector as a platform for post-COVID economic recovery, particularly around the focus of enabling industry in space through manufacturing. These include:
 

1.       Driving the levelling up agenda through regional development – The North East and Midlands in particular have a large manufacturing capability that is ripe for transition to the space sector and can grow the UK’s manufacturing footprint. However, investment is required to assess the UK’s broader capabilities, identify skills gaps and re-skill engineers. This would lower the barrier to entry into the space sector for manufactures and de-risk procurement through prequalification tools.
 

2.       Creating new, high-skilled jobs through growth of GVA and the industrial sector as a whole - Development through commercial and collaborative projects is required to translate terrestrial capabilities in robotics, and automation, validate new manufacturing techniques, and train data sets for digital engineering. These enabling technologies can lay the groundwork for better access to in-space operations, greater safety and reliability, better performance of manufactured components, and create efficiency and quality in production. Development projects can drive and create a highly skilled workforce and support growth of GVA.
 

3.       Enabling sustainability and carbon zero targets through more intelligent and digital operations - Digital engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning and visualisation can improve efficiency of operations, optimise materials usage, increase performance of assets and most importantly improve quality and repeatability. Space production is a relatively bespoke and manual process open to a large degree of human error and with lower efficiency. The ‘New Space’ age is still in its infancy, but there is now a ramping up in volumes of space assets to support the introduction of mega constellations through organisations such as One Web. If UK manufacturing infrastructure is to support this type of production, it will need to introduce more digital capability to ensure that production is having a positive impact on the UK sustainability targets.
 

4.       Building UK sovereign capability and the future workforce to support it - Using advanced manufacturing technologies can create a step change in the UK’s offering for the space sector, driving a ‘one-stop shop’ scenario for space capability but also offering the art of the possible for production. The sector has a legacy issue with production often being bespoke and change being required to modernise manufacturing technologies that are well-proven and well-established in analogous, highly regulated sectors such as motorsports. Adoption of high value manufacturing by the industry would make the UK world-leading in terms of our space offering and also create a sense of momentum and excitement for uptake of STEM activities and roles within the space sector for tertiary learners.

 

1.2       Weaknesses in UK Upstream and On-Orbit space activity

There are also challenges that must be overcome if the UK is to become a true ‘one stop shop’ for space with the end-to-end value chain to underpin it, enabling it to compete with other countries such as the United States. It must also address issues around the cost of entering the sector, the UK’s nascent upstream sector and other regulatory and technical barriers.

Margins in the space sector are often slim and the market is dominated by a small number of large incumbents often drawing from aerospace and defence industries, with losses subsidised by existing large defence contracts. This is unsustainable, and the Government should look to create an economically viable supply chain, open to the mass market, lowering the barrier to new entrants to enter the market and de-risking new partnerships for end users.

The UK’s downstream sector, which makes use of wider applications and space-aligned technologies, is relatively mature and consolidated. However the upstream segments, made up of space manufacturing and operations is weaker.

Space Qualified Enabling & Commercial Off The Shelf Technologies (COTS)

Access to space and In-Space/On-Orbit opportunities require enabling technologies such as robotics, automation and digital engineering to make opportunities commercially viable and attractive to international end users. Moreover, the introduction of and development of COTS technology will make the UK’s exploitation and commercialisation of Low Earth Orbit more accessible.

Currently the barrier to entry from non-space sector organisations with appropriate capability is high with little incentive to divert from their core businesses, which are flourishing. Access to, and engagement with, these non-space organisations will be a critical success factor.

There are also other technical issues associated with our current technologies and manufacturing processes, which need to be addressed. Challenges include things such as lightweighting, cost of development, and new technologies to improve reliability and safety through production scale up. Progress in these areas will create a step change in the sector growth making the UK a first class space economy, capable of attracting significant Foreign Direct Investment and providing socially responsible and ethical leadership for the sustainable use of Space.

Supply Chain Expansion and Resilience

The upstream supply chain is also unsegmented, made up of a small number of niche manufacturing companies meaning that it lacks resilience. Yet the UK does have a substantive manufacturing capability that, with the right support, can be pivoted to help drive the space sector. It is here that the MTC is best placed to add value to UK PLC, helping to provide and enable the technologies and product standards that could see the translation of knowledge to the sector.

International Collaboration

Space is an inherently global activity and whilst the sector is keen to collaborate internationally, it is often challenging to find funding sources that support bi and multi-lateral development of this nature. Furthermore, variations in policy and regulation create barriers to collaboration particularly with regard to Manufacturing, Launch and operations. For the UK to remain relevant and hold a leadership position Government activity to refresh outdated policies and regulations around manufacturing, testing, debris management and export to align with ally nations and enable international engagements. Partners such as Japan, Australia and Canada are key countries with significant alignment to UK aspirations where an equitable benefit is likely.

2         Critical Success Factors: Big Ideas to enable Big Growth

2.1       Space Sustainability

The creation of a space-based circular economy is an opportunity for the UK to show its commitment to being an ethical and sustainable global space power. Space debris is a growing and underserviced global problem, presenting a risk to critical infrastructure, posing legal and insurance issues and with operators failing to make use of the residual value of stranded assets.

 

Development of an In-Space reprocessing and recycling facility would expand the opportunity to exploit the UK’s current strengths such as in robotics and digital engineering, which can support remote operations in the future. Government investment is required to de-risk ambitious launches and salvage operations to trial active debris removal and end of life services technologies, to better reuse and repurpose materials and components. This also requires change to international regulatory standards, agreements and legal frameworks to set guidelines for ownership and salvage of inactive space assets and debris that are currently out of date.
 

The MTC are using their extensive experience with distributed manufacturing models, and advanced manufacturing options to assess the technologies required and the considerations for an underpinning regulation to support the establishment of the Space based circular economy. However, further action is needed from the Government to see the UK take a global lead in space sustainability.

 

2.2       Space Manufacturing Clusters

In order to overcome some of the technical challenges of the commercialisation of civil space activity, a UK Space Strategy should look to create new space manufacturing clusters. Co-location of prototyping, manufacturing, integration and testing with space sector innovators would support the adoption of new technologies, materials and processes.

 

Clusters could build on existing work such as the Satellite Applications Catapult DISC (Disruptive Innovation for Space Centre), and other initiatives such as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Strategy, pulling together industry and academia. These Space Manufacturing Clusters could focus around Advance Space Manufacturing Centres of Excellence to provide the facility to trial new concepts and technologies for production in a lower risk, lower cost environment. The Catapult network is a trusted neutral entity and its technical authorities are well positioned to design and deliver this type of infrastructure and support the UK Government’s ambition to build back better.

 

2.3       Future skills

If the UK space sector is to grow, it must ensure that the skills of the future workforce are aligned with sector needs. In practice, this means mandating space engineering awareness into tertiary curriculums, training new or retraining existing engineers with specialist skills, and the greater promotion and linking of STEM activities to the Space sector for younger learners.

The space sector has a significant gap in its workforce with an aging population of experienced space sector experts and a young workforce with a lack of specific engineering experience and limited access to operational activities. This divide needs to be bridged with the upskilling of the younger workforce accelerated to ensure business continuity. The model created by Oxfordshire Advanced Skills (OAS) in Culham provides a suitable blueprint for the space sector. The OAS centre brings together world-leading industrial players and is supported by the MTC to create an apprenticeship training programme. This model could be built upon to provide the training and skills to help underpin the supply chain across the UK’s space industry.

2.4       Encouraging new market entrants

The UK’s policy and regulatory framework across the UK space sector creates high barriers to entry and does not reflect technological advancements over the last two decades. A UK Space Strategy should lower or remove these barriers to open up the sector and support smaller market entrants who are unable to compete, and non-space sector organisations with enabling technologies. A Space Strategy should focus on bringing in the transferrable advanced digital engineering and manufacturing capabilities that are present across other sectors but which have not yet transitioned into space such as in aerospace, robotics and agriculture. Fixing this requires bold thinking and an innovative approach. Potential initiatives could include:
 

        New accreditation and standards - The manufacturing supply base of the UK space sector is immature, and it is hard for new entrants to navigate. The Government could look to bring in new, centralised, and easy to understand, accreditation process to support quality assurance. The MTC has the basis of a ‘Space Ready’ accreditation concept building on an already operational Supply Chain Readiness Assessment tool.
 

        Rapid in-orbit trials - It is a costly and lengthy process to trial and demonstrate technology in space. It can take upwards of 2 years to arrange and launch In-Orbit trials at significant cost and as companies wait to align with appropriate delivery partners and launch slots. The Government should look to facilitate a regular, rolling programme of subsidised missions to support the trial and demonstration of upstream technology. The program would eventually become self-fulfilling with the successful upstream technology demonstrate on the early missions integrated into later missions for further validation and Space heritage.
 

        In-space development platform – A facility in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with open access for businesses to trial LEO manufacturing. Microgravity and vacuum conditions in LEO make it an ideal location for manufacturing pharmaceuticals, electronics, organs and other bio-matter. The removal of gravity ensures that growth and layering of substrates and components does not form imperfections with the vacuum, helping to remove contamination. For example, this would result in higher quality products and increased efficiency of electronics. Innovation will be impeded unless there are open access platforms available with a commercial driver to develop them at a reasonable cost and with ease of access.

3         The MTC’s relevant partnerships and experience

The MTC has a large range of partnerships, with 100 members, and experience working across the sectors that will underpin the UK’s existing and future space industry. The MTC-ESA Additive Manufacturing Benchmarking Centre has also created a platform to work with other players from across the sector including Airbus, BAE systems and Thales Alenia Space in developing and validating new materials, and manufacturing processes for space applications.

 

The MTC has positioned itself as an enabler to the Space sector, looking to complement the sector by bringing to bear manufacturing technologies, processes and experience and supporting non-space sector entering the market. The Space Sector Strategy for the MTC is focused on three growth areas shown in Figure 1. The figure illustrates the manufacturing needs within the focus area and the MTC capabilities and expertise that can add value and enable acceleration of sector development:

 

Figure 1: MTC Space Sector focus overview

 

Throughout the coming year, the MTC will be building visibility and credibility within the sector further. We will do this through delivering a number of collaborative projects that require a multi-disciplinary approach, for example the overlay of artificial intelligence and digital engineering with robotics to create evolvable, autonomous robotic systems. These collaborative projects not only contribute to UK GVA, but also aim to develop and deliver new enabling technologies that will support the UK space sector to achieve further advancements. Moreover, the MTC expertise is a great mechanism to de-risk and support the ‘spin-in’ of the wider UK manufacturing supply into the space sector, adding resilience in the supply chain and creating new opportunities.

 

In the longer term, the MTC has the strengths and capability to work with industry to help enable the growth of the manufacturing and space sectors and to help other businesses transition into this new area, through expertise across supply chain development and readiness assessments and digital engineering analysis for production and design optimisations.

 

 

(June 2021)

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[1]UK can lead the world in global space sector’, High Value Manufacturing Catapult, May 2019

[2] ‘New centre introducing ESA projects and space firms to 3D printing’, European Space Agency, May 2017

[3] ‘The Top 100 Apprenticeship Employers 2020 list’, GOV.UK, October 2020