Sir James Dyson: To stay ahead of rivals, we must start tempting the world with our inventiveness again
R&D breeds new technology which in turn leads to burgeoning order books
Saturday 30 June 2012
British manufacturing is alive and well, but it is changing. High-technology manufacturing, exemplified by the motor industry, and research and development into technologies of the future will power Britain's exports – tempting the world by showing what is possible with new inventions.
As China's ambitions grow and the international boundaries of trade shift, we must again seek to tempt the world with the invention of new British technology.
But this is nothing new. Historically, it has been Britain's inventiveness and application of knowledge that has allowed us to stay ahead of our competitors, whatever the battle.
Alan Turing, whose 100th birthday we celebrated last week, cracked the German ciphers, but he went on to apply his nimble mind to make him a founding father of the computing industry.
The Pilot Ace computer, inspired by Turing's invention of the Colossus, was said to be a representation of the inner workings of his mind, remarkably complex whilst demonstrating the power of applied knowledge.
Put simply, research and development (R&D) breeds new technology which in turn leads to successful companies and burgeoning order books. Without it, significant and lucrative ideas go undiscovered. Or, worse still, they go to competitor companies.
Rolls-Royce understands this, investing heavily in a network of university technology centres focusing on in-depth research from combustion to aerodynamics.
It is this expertise which means Rolls-Royce engines power half of all the aircraft in the sky today.
Just as the industrial revolution sharpened minds and forced change upon Britain's industries, a similar change confronted us with the expanding economies of India and China.
With small technology and component suppliers forced to move overseas in the Nineties, we moved up the value chain.
However, this became no longer viable as our company's expertise developed into tangible technology. So, 10 years ago Dyson made the difficult decision to move final assembly of our machines to South-east Asia to be close to our suppliers, with the regrettable loss of 550 jobs.
Without responding to these pressures, we wouldn't have been able to survive.
Now Dyson employs more than 1,200 people in the UK, more than half of whom are engineers and scientists.
The jobs are high technology; we work with bright minds and many recent graduates working on our technology pipeline stretching out 25 years.
R&D is Dyson's focus – and it must be Britain's.
The worrying thing is that much of the research is being undertaken elsewhere.
Graphene is one of the few new things actually developed in Britain. Created by Russian-born physicist Andre Geim, from the University of Manchester, Graphene has the potential to change material science but we are not doing enough with it.
The material is just one atom thick, yet one million times as conductive as copper, and the industry could be worth £300bn a year by a decade. Yet the UK is in sixth place when it comes to patent filings for this intriguing material.
British companies and the Government must get behind British developments in order to ensure that we can benefit from their application.
Our universities produce some of the finest research in the world – we must harness it, invest in it, and retain the most knowledgeable academic minds.
Staying ahead of the competition requires relentless investment, it is a risk, but one worth taking. Leadership from the government is paramount.
The recent increase in R&D tax credits for small businesses to 225 per cent and the reduction in corporation tax for larger firms will help incentivise companies, but there is more to be done to encourage collaboration between universities and business, and a pushing for greater commercialisation of technology.
By investing for the future we will ensure that Britain will retain its inventive streak and remain in line with our ambitious competitors.
Sir James Dyson is a designer and founder of the Dyson company
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