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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Unleashing the economic potential of UK manufacturing

By a.tacu, on 2 May 2024

Image of speaker presentingManufacturing has a pivotal role to play in building a thriving future UK economy which is resilient and can meet many of the increasingly pressing challenges facing UK society.  

But is this fundamental role fully understood by those outside the world of manufacturing? Attending ‘The Future of UK Manufacturing’ event earlier this month has prompted me to reflect on this question.  

Common cross-sectoral challenges and potential solutions 

Recent policy developments such as the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Plan supported by £4.5 billion of funding for strategic manufacturing sectors, the Net Zero Strategy and the UK Net Zero Research and Innovation Framework point to the increasing awareness of the importance of manufacturing for the UK economy in recent years.  

While this is welcome, a number of challenges continue to hamper the ability of manufacturing to realise its true economic potential. 

One of the key apparent challenges is that, despite the fact that the UK is a global leader in innovation and research, this does not fully translate into economic value through industrial activity [1]. For example, in terms of number of research publications, the UK surpasses the US in per capita terms, but it lags behind in translating scientific knowledge into commercial success. A telling example is that the word ‘manufacturing’ is only mentioned once in the ‘Science and Technology Framework’, which risks creating the perception that the onus is on industry when it comes to scaling up new technologies. 

Although a constant stream of fundamental research is a crucial part of the innovation ecosystem, the ability to scale up lab-based demonstrations needs to become an equally prominent part of how research is undertaken in the UK to set the right conditions for success. Lessons can be learned from the example of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine where the parallel research in immunology and in manufacturing, supported by the Vax-Hub, contributed to the speedy Covid-19 vaccine rollout.  

Another significant challenge for the UK manufacturing community is skills gaps, which amounts to between £7.7 and £8.3 billion in lost annual economic output [2]. Part of the difficulty in attracting talent to manufacturing careers is that manufacturing jobs are still associated with a traditional view of manufacturing roles as being manual and poorly paid. A study led by InterAct suggests that these perceptions can be changed by focusing on levers which have the potential to attract people to manufacturing careers such as flexibility and being part of the solution to many of the health-related, environmental and economic issues we are facing. 

Which leads us to one of the recurring themes that emerged from the discussions held during the event – the importance of storytelling and narrative setting. There was agreement that the UK manufacturing community should challenge outdated perceptions and create a positive narrative about the role of manufacturing that cuts across sectors and is clearly communicated to policymakers and those outside the world of manufacturing. Coalescing around a common strong narrative can support with ensuring manufacturing remains high on the policymakers’ agendas and can attract the skilled people it needs.  

So, what could this narrative be? One of the workshop sessions explored this exact question. A strong narrative should show how manufacturing can be at the forefront of creating good quality jobs and be a fundamental part of the UK’s future economic prosperity and national security.  

Early-stage R&D, which underpins manufacturing innovation, requires continued long-term funding support as businesses are often risk-averse and not incentivised to invest sufficiently at that stage. The Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been responding to this need through its manufacturing for the future research funding programmes, which is very welcome. I am left convinced that prioritising this type of investment is more important than ever and that, over the long term, these investments will more than pay for themselves in value returned to the UK. 


The EPSRC together with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge organised ‘The Future of UK Manufacturing’ event in Sheffield. The event brought together academics, policymakers, innovation agencies and industry to review the current UK manufacturing landscape and to look ahead to future research and innovation priorities and opportunities. I attended this event as Policy Adviser for Vax-Hub Sustainable, one of the manufacturing research hubs funded by EPSRC and co-led by UCL Biochemical Engineering and the University of Oxford.   

Author’s note 

Written by Anca Tacu, Policy Impact Unit. With thanks to Jen Reed, Head of Policy Impact Unit, for her valuable contributions.  


[1] Cambridge Industrial Innovation Policy. 2024. UK Innovation Report 2024. Available at: https://www.ciip.group.cam.ac.uk/innovation/the-uk-innovation-report-2024/  

[2] Policy Connect. 2023. Upskilling Industry: Manufacturing productivity and growth in England. Available at: https://www.policyconnect.org.uk/research/upskilling-industry-manufacturing-productivity-and-growth-england  

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