Innovative thinking and new skills are key to low-carbon future - comment

By its very nature, the manufacturing sector has, throughout its history, faced up to external challenges by innovating.

Whether those challenges were related to issues as diverse as competition, new technology, political upheaval, recruitment or even, in the most extreme case, the outbreak of war, Scotland’s manufacturers have continually taken innovative approaches to devising the necessary solutions to respond to difficult times.

That ability to invent different ways of working, identify and exploit new routes to market, and create new products that respond to consumer demand is what marks out the very best companies and most talented people.

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Stewart McKinlay, skills director at the Manufacturing Skills Academy, part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland Group. Picture: contributed.Stewart McKinlay, skills director at the Manufacturing Skills Academy, part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland Group. Picture: contributed.
Stewart McKinlay, skills director at the Manufacturing Skills Academy, part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland Group. Picture: contributed.
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But the massive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on manufacturing – and on the business community as a whole – means that there has never been a greater need for manufacturers to innovate and adapt as they begin the process of recovery, and target the desired return to prosperity.

Significantly, many have already shown their resilience and creative thinking in response to the pandemic. This has included everything from adapting their facilities or processes, redeploying staff to different roles, investing in (or in some cases inventing) new technology or creating new products to tackle the issues faced by society as a result of the pandemic, such as the urgent need for medical equipment.

The drive towards business stability and economic recovery is ongoing at a time when manufacturing is also facing up to another challenge, that of playing a crucial role in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Investing in green innovation

If the Scottish Government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2045 is to be achieved, Scotland’s manufacturing industry will have a hugely significant part to play.

Research suggests that industry awareness of the net-zero target is high – a survey by MakeUK and E.ON carried out last year showed that 90 per cent of manufacturers were aware of the target, 20 per cent had already taken some action, and a further 20 per cent were considering what action to take, with COP26 having only cemented that call for action.

A fundamental economic model shift is happening and as a society we are rethinking and transforming full value chains to create waste-less and restorative systems. The key to success for manufacturers is to view the transition not as a challenge but rather as an opportunity to widen the focus of their innovative thinking by factoring sustainability into their business practices. There is real opportunity to be unlocked by early adopters of such models.

The challenges to overcome

In highlighting the opportunities that exist, we should not attempt to downplay the barriers for businesses as they assess the different demands on their investment.

At a time when the top priority for many companies is simply adjusting to and managing the impact that the pandemic has had on trade, they may find it hard to justify investing heavily for what they see that, in the short term, can be minimal return.

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At the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), we are operated by the University of Strathclyde and work with businesses and organisations of all sizes, helping them overcome the challenges faced across a multitude of sectors.

Through a new programme, we are directly encouraging and supporting innovation and helping manufacturers seize opportunities by upskilling the workforce and improving knowledge around the funding landscape.

The initiative is part of the funding awarded to NMIS from the Scottish Government’s £20 million National Transition Training Fund, which supports people who have lost their job or are at risk of redundancy as a result of the pandemic.

One of the essential elements for businesses in helping to achieve net-zero will clearly be the ability to recruit those with the right skills to do the green jobs of the future or to retrain existing staff to equip them with the necessary abilities.

Supporting individuals as they look to the next steps within their career, guiding them on the training available, and advising on where future opportunities lie within their current industry or in an emerging sector, is key to our support.

Additionally, we are encouraging Scottish manufacturing businesses to use available opportunities for innovation, mainly through the UK and Scottish Government research and development funding schemes, and we are supporting businesses of all sizes in identifying the best solution for them.

Whilst net-zero is the new challenge, innovation within the manufacturing sector is not a new concept. The industry has met each hurdle face on and will continue to do so.

However, one clear lesson from the pandemic was that none of us, either in our personal or business lives, exists in a vacuum. The ability to collaborate, share information and work across sectors and disciplines, is vital and will be enormously important in communicating the message that the transition to a low-carbon world is not only beneficial in helping tackle climate change but will also drive economic growth.

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The race to net-zero has already started and we must ensure that the skills and funding support required to unlock innovation is accessible now.

Stewart McKinlay, skills director at the Manufacturing Skills Academy, part of the NMIS Group

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