Just outside Sheffield, in the north of England, lies the battlefield on which former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher faced down – and defeated – the restive unions during the infamous miners’ strikes in the 1980s. It was here, at the local coking plant, that police and workers squared off in ugly scenes that played across television newscasts the world over. Such memories might be burned into the collective consciousness of those who experienced and witnessed the conflict, but today there are few visible reminders. In fact, what has arisen on the land around the storied plant site is not a monument to this painful past but rather a statement about the future of British manufacturing.

Like many other rust-belt regions, South Yorkshire was geared for much of the last century towards high-volume manufacturing of commodity products and in recent decades had been hard-hit by the structural decline of its bedrock industries of coal and steel. The regional economy historically had low levels of R&D, product innovation and knowledge transfer, and its businesses were slow to respond to changing international markets. But it also had highly specialised materials and engineering expertise in local businesses, and world-class materials and engineering knowledge in regional universities and technology organisations.

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The public sector saw an opportunity to capitalise on the area’s strengths through the creation of the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP). A joint venture was created between regional development agency Yorkshire Forward and UK Coal to reclaim land on the former opencast colliery at Waverley, Rotherham, and to develop the AMP into a hub for advanced manufacturing activity and research. The EU’s European Regional Development Fund has also supported the project.

Project aims

The target is to have 1500 jobs on the site when its development is completed and to attract more than £100m in investment.

“Sheffield-Rotherham still produces as much steel as before; we just do it with a tenth of the workforce,” says Simon Spode, marketing manager at AMP. “We’re still doing what we have been doing for 300 years.”

Yes, but with a modern twist. Far from mourning the loss of dead industries, the park is designed to reflect the current face of global manufacturing, which is characterised by reduced development time in bringing new products to market, rapid introduction of new products, shorter production runs, increasing use of new materials, and the drive to reduce costs and make manufacturing more efficient. The technologies being developed at the AMP are helping industry to produce goods better, faster and cheaper while enabling the UK to retain a pre-eminent position in manufacturing in the knowledge economy.

Some of the biggest names in the aerospace industry are already on board. The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the anchor tenant, arrived in 2004. A £45m collaboration with Boeing, the AMRC focuses on identifying, researching and solving advanced manufacturing problems through its research on material forming, metal working and castings. It also carries out groundbreaking research in the field of composite materials – a crucial part of the development of Boeing’s new-generation planes.

The AMRC received its initial government funding of £5.93m from the UK Department of Trade and Industry, with additional funding from Yorkshire Forward, the University of Sheffield and Boeing, which has a 10-year commitment of involvement with the centre. Since then, 10 Tier 1 sponsors have lent their support and more than 15 Tier 2 sponsors, representing the full spectrum of the aerospace supply chain.

In 2004, the centre’s impressive research capability – which finds a solid foundation in the region’s historic indigenous expertise in metal-working and engineering – was demonstrated with the development of critical titanium milling techniques, enabling Messier-Dowty to win a contract to supply the entire landing gear for Boeing’s next-generation 787. It was the first time such a contract had been awarded to a non-US company.

Factory of the future

The second development phase of the AMRC, known as the Factory of the Future, will seek to push the boundaries of manufacturing knowledge even further. The building, when completed in late 2007 or early 2008, will be about four times the existing AMRC footprint, at 4564 square metres. Sponsored by Rolls-Royce, the factory will be purpose-built to house the latest manufacturing equipment and state-of-the-art production capabilities to enable companies to trial new developments in a full-scale commercial production facility before making major, high-risk investment decisions.

The factory is expected to be of interest to companies in the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors. More than 100 University of Sheffield researchers will be stationed on the site; they will be responsible for transferring knowledge of the industrial techniques pioneered there to companies throughout the region.

Also on site at the AMP is Castings Technology International (Cti), which is concerned with the design, manufacture and inspection of precision, high-integrity prototype, one-off and small batches of metal castings produced in magnesium, aluminium, titanium, iron and steel, and nickel-based alloys.

Cti invented what is known as the ‘patternless process’, whereby moulds are directly machined out of blocks of sand. This process proves to be a very cost-effective way of producing one-off or small production run castings, because it does not require the manufacture of patterns and core boxes.

When the US Armed Forces needed a lightweight howitzer that could be transported by helicopter – necessitating construction with materials such as titanium – initial parts for the road-arm running gear manufactured by US suppliers failed due to forces exerted during the firing of the gun. But Cti was able to provide a solution. Parts cast by Cti are not only able to withstand forces but the first casting provided a prototype accurate enough to be used for test purposes without the need for amendment.

Patternless process has also significantly reduced the time from design and development to the production of propulsor units for the Royal Navy’s new Astute-class attack submarines, cutting the time from CAD model to prototypes from six months to six weeks.

Technology centre

Another lynchpin for the park is the TWI Technology Centre. Formerly The Welding Institute and now known as the World Centre for Materials Joining Technology, TWI exemplifies the sort of evolution that AMP is encouraging in South Yorkshire’s traditional industries. “We grew from welding and moved on to other things,” explains Mark Roughsedge, technical business developer at the centre.

Founded just after World War Two and based near Cambridge, TWI is one of the world’s largest independent research and technology organisations, serving about 3500 companies and organisations representing nearly all sectors of the manufacturing industry from more than 50 countries. TWI has established specialised technology centres in the UK with the support of the European Regional Development Fund, among them the AMP’s TWI Technology Centre (Yorkshire), which is specialised in advanced manufacturing processes across such sectors as aerospace, oil and gas, and medical applications.

The processes pioneered at the centre, such as laser processing and friction stir-welding, are much more subtle and sophisticated – if less dramatic – than the old methods of joining materials.

“There is still a place for the traditional image of the welder – with sparks flying, etc,” says Mr Roughsedge, “but that is only part of what we do now.”

FLOOR SPACE

The AMP’s property offer includes a range of facilities to suit manufacturing technology companies and R&D operations of various sizes.

The 6705-square-metre (m2) Innovation Technology Centre (ITC) has small-scale managed offices; there are plots available elsewhere on the park for freehold or leasehold design-and-build units; and a flexible-manufacturing area will house small to medium-sized hybrid and industrial units as of the first quarter of 2008.

Phase two of the ITC, scheduled for completion in mid-2008, will offer an additional 9144m2 of office/workshop space where environmental and energy technologies can be developed and where companies can test out ideas on the building’s miniature energy grid.