In 1984, at a coking plant in Orgreave near Sheffield, headlines were made as miners and police clashed violently in what became known as the 'Battle of Orgreave'. It was a long and bloody feud that marked the end of the UK's post-war industrial age, and for a long time was synonymous with the region.

A decade on, however, at the location widely considered to represent the deathbed of the country's steel and mining industry, the sector was revived. Orgreave was reborn as a place of collaboration rather than conflict. The site of the former coking plant was transformed into the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP), a project that symbolised a burgeoning new era for the UK's manufacturing sector. 

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Steely resolve

Labels such as 'cutting-edge' and 'innovative' are often bandied about by local authorities where parks such as AMP are concerned. However, in AMP's case, these labels ring true. The 400,000-square-metre high-tech cluster counts among its partners numerous international names, including companies such as multinational aerospace and defence corporation Boeing, aero-engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and car manufacturer Volvo.

“Orgreave used to symbolise internal and external conflict. Now it is the complete opposite [and] AMP symbolises this,” says Neil MacDonald, master cutler at the Company of Cutlers, a trade guild of metalworkers established in 1624 to maintain the standards and quality of Sheffield manufactured cutlery and steel products. 

Historically, the master cutler served as the gatekeeper of the cutlery guild but, in recent years, this prestigious title has been awarded to individuals willing to champion the local manufacturing industry. This is because, contrary to popular belief, Sheffield's steel industry is still going strong. “Steel production is not gone. Steel-bashing is. The cheap commodity has been replaced by high-end production,” says Mr MacDonald.

One of the major players in the region's steel sector is Tata Steel Speciality, a division of Indian multinational steel producer Tata Steel. Tata Steel Speciality in Rotherham is one of only four such sub-divisions worldwide in the Indian steel conglomerate, which is one of the largest steel producers globally, and one of its most important. 

Mind and matter

“Steel production employs much fewer people than in the past, but the output is pretty much the same thanks to the new processes,” says Paul Woodcock, director of planning and regeneration at Rotherham Council, the borough that houses AMP. 

New processes would not be possible without brainpower and Sheffield, with two major universities, has no shortage of that. But it was the move, in 2004, by the University of Sheffield to partner with Boeing and create the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in AMP that really marked a turning point for the industry. 

Over the years the centre has expanded from aerospace research, its initial field of expertise, into nuclear and metals. Soon, the model will be also applied to the healthcare and digital sectors, thanks to a $75.8m government grant.

"A decade on, AMP is a thriving community of world-class companies, and has been designated as having strategic national importance. It has attracted more than 60,000 visitors, who come to witness this showcase model of academic, industrial and governmental collaboration. By 2016, it is estimated that AMP will employ more than 2000 skilled workers,” says Adrian Allen, a co-founder of AMP and the commercial director of AMRC.

Big pull

“AMP has an absolutely fantastic reputation. A lot of places around the country build technology parks, hoping that companies will come. This one is demand driven,” says Barry Cunliffe, chief financial officer at ITM Power, a hydrogen energy systems manufacturer. 

The region's reputation was one of the reasons why, five years ago, Mr Cunliffe's company considered relocating here from its previous home in Cambridge in the south of the UK. But reputation was not the deciding factor for Mr Cunliffe. Nor was the $1.5m grant offered by Yorkshire Forward, the predecessor to Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, as other locations offered similar incentives at that time. It was another factor that proved instrumental in ITM's decision to move to Sheffield. 

“This region, thanks to its centuries of expertise in manufacturing, is quality oriented. In our business, small amounts of contamination can have a huge impact on the performance of the product. We have to be sure that what we get here is very precise and clean,” says Mr Cunliffe.

He adds that the region's supply chain was also a major draw. “The majority of things that we need, we can find within one mile of the office,” he says.

The same points were cited by Metalysis, a metals manufacturer, as deciding factors in its decision to establish its base in the region. According to Kartik Rao, the company's director of business development, being based in Rotherham allows the company to be around people who “understand what we do”. He says that it “gives the company access to people and companies that know how to move small-scale activity into mass production”. 

High flyers

Metalysis is currently looking to commercialise its business and is planning to open a tantalum powder production facility by the end of the year. Its future ambitions are big and, according to its website, it aims to “transform the world of metals”. Such a statement could sound overly ambitious elsewhere, but in Sheffield such aspiration resonates well. The city has already seen local companies transforming their respective markets. 

Gripple, a wire joiner manufacturer is one such success story. The company was founded by local entrepreneur, Hugh Facey, in 1988. It now employs nearly 400 people and has an annual turnover in excess of $60m. The company has assisted with the building of major landmarks, including London's Shard, Chicago's Trump Tower and New York's Yankee Stadium. 

“What we have here is people. They are tremendous,” says Andrew Davies, business development director at Gripple. According to Mr Davies, the local workforce has a tradition of innovation, and given the right conditions and treatment, can push the business forward.

But what is the right treatment? In a bid to nurture its enterprising employees, the company provides training programmes and, as an incentive, issues every employee with shares.

It has also taken special care to develop a working environment that stimulates its employees. The company has incorporated pool tables and a study into its office space and, in a more radical move, has suspended a model cow and cannon to the ceiling. Why? Because it can. Rigging up these models not only provides a visual application of the company's products, but it encourages the sort of off-the-wall thinking that can inspire a revolutionary new idea. 

 

Reshaping the mould

Research and development in Sheffield is not confined to high-tech labs or rich and powerful multinationals. William Beckett Plastics, a local plastic packaging manufacturer, is a case in point. For more than four decades, the company has been run by William Beckett, a local entrepreneur and a candid ambassador for manufacturing in the region. According to Mr Beckett, Sheffield wins over other locations not only because its residents “can tell one end of the moulding machine from the other”, but also because its research centres work closely with local businesses.

After being invited by the University of Sheffield to participate in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, a programme launched by the UK government to foster co-operation between universities and business, Mr Beckett's company decided to venture into metal injection moulding, a process that uses powdered metal to create solid objects.

“We are very excited about the future, now it is the question of how quickly we can be commercially successful,” says Mr Beckett. He is planning to construct a new metal injection moulding plant within the next 12 months.