The Big Interview: Sarah Jardine, COO of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland

Sarah Jardine is chief operating officer of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), which helps manufacturers upskill workforces, turn ideas into commercial reality, and solve production challenges by developing and embracing new technologies and processes.

When Covid struck and the first lockdown was announced, Ms Jardine had barely started in the role.

“I had literally been in the office for about ten or 11 weeks when I had to start sending everybody home,” says the Ayrshire-born laser engineer. “Like everyone else, I thought lockdown would maybe last for six weeks or so. I didn't think we would still be doing it now.”

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This week, she is one of the keynote speakers at Scotland s largest manufacturing conference, which will showcase how Scottish manufacturers have responded to the pandemic. The event will also explore how businesses can recover in a sustainable way, by embracing new and low-carbon technologies.

Ms Jardine sees the need to grow manufacturing businesses rooted in Scotland’s communities. Picture: contributed.

To be held virtually on 15-16 June, the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service National Manufacturing Conference 2021 is expected to bring together 600 manufacturers from across the country.

How has Covid affected manufacturing?

It’s been a year like no other – Covid-19 has brought a new era of innovation to Scottish manufacturing. Manufacturers have faced a great deal of uncertainty and disruption. But that’s not to say it has all been negative – because for some, disruption and uncertainty has meant opportunity.

A number of manufacturers have diversified their product range, for example by switching production to hand sanitiser or personal protective equipment.

We've also been working with manufacturers to help them explore new technologies. For example, we’ve helped one engineering company in Dundee introduce an additive manufacturing offering for its customers.

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Additive manufacturing is a computer-controlled process that involves creating objects by layering material like plastic or metal. 3D printing is the best-known additive manufacturing technique. This resulted in the company receiving an increased number of enquiries from new territories and new markets.

There are also organisations that have embraced what we might refer to as a more agile or more flexible way of working.

Two years ago, lots of us would have said, “there's no way we could have most of our team working from home”. But actually we’ve been proved wrong on those things.

What is the NMIS?

We are a group of industry-led manufacturing research and development centres with a manufacturing skills academy. We also have a network of partners across Scotland. We help manufacturers adopt advanced manufacturing technologies and skills. Our aim is to transform productivity levels in manufacturing, make manufacturers more competitive, and boost the skills of the sector’s workforce.

Research and development work can be very expensive. And manufacturers worry about the return on investment when it comes to innovation. We help lessen the risk by providing an environment to explore options with our industry-leading engineers and researchers – and this in turn helps the companies decide where to spend their budget and to do so wisely.

The NMIS is set up to make Scotland a global leader in advanced manufacturing. It is operated by the University of Strathclyde and supported by the Scottish Government in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council and Renfrewshire Council.

How have you been supporting businesses during the pandemic?

We’ve been working with manufacturers of all sizes across various industries to help them identify and seize opportunities. For some, this has been about reforming their business completely through embracing innovation. But for others, it has been about solving day-to-day production challenges that have affected their bottom line.

Moving forward into a post-pandemic world, manufacturers will be faced with complex situations on a number of fronts. None more so than embracing the drive towards a net-zero economy.

Has the pandemic changed how manufacturers work?

The pandemic has been hugely challenging. But new ways of working before and since Covid have also brought opportunities to upskill Scotland’s manufacturing workforce.

For example, often when we talk about robots and automation, there's this spectre that people will lose their jobs and be replaced by machines. Actually, those machines break down, so rather than being the person who places the components, you can now be the person who maintains the machine that places the components.

One of the biggest skills that anybody can learn is how to solve problems. For me, that’s what innovation and engineering are all about.

People often associate manufacturing with the Industrial Revolution and dark Victorian factories. But modern manufacturing is clean, it’s organised and it’s bright. It’s a place where you want to go every day. And you don't have to have a shower when you leave.

Where are you from and what got you into laser engineering?

I grew up in Ayrshire and went to Ayr Academy. I used to watch Tomorrow's World and Blue Peter on TV, and was fascinated by advances in technology and by making stuff.

My dad was a physicist, and then a teacher and headmaster. I remember the first computer he brought home from school. It filled our whole boxroom. It used to take him the whole summer holiday to make a timetable for the school by punching a card with a knitting needle. Then with the computer, he could do it in a week, so I really understood the difference that technology could make to people.

I graduated from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow in 1992 with a BSc (Hons) in laser physics and optoelectronics, and then completed a Masters in laser engineering from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

When I left university and discovered you could have a job in manufacturing making things, I knew I had found my calling!

Where did you work and what were the highlights?

In 1993, I was recruited as a laser engineer at Thales Optronics, then known as Pilkington Optronics. It had started life as Barr & Stroud, a Glasgow-based optical engineering firm that played a leading role in the development of modern optics in the late 19th century.

In 2000, I became a senior optical engineer at Optos in Dunfermline. It was a start-up at the time. Now it sells its novel retinal scanner globally.

Optos was an example of industry 4.0 before anybody knew what industry 4.0 was. Their product is world-class and they sell for the price of a really high-end luxury sports car. But they are assembled by hand, by highly skilled people who spend all day in the dark moving things very small distances so they can make a difference to people’s sight.

I worked there for 20 years, becoming research and development manager in 2008 and plant manager in 2009. I was then promoted to director in 2011 and to senior director in 2017.

You also chaired Scottish Enterprise's Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service (SMAS), which advises businesses on new manufacturing technology...

While working at Optos, I joined the board of SMAS in 2013 and was chair from 2015 to December 2019. It was a huge privilege and honour. I was delighted to find the same passion that I have for manufacturing.

One day you can be talking to someone who's making a vaccine, and then the next it’s someone who’s building a ship. We talk about sectors like textiles and food and drink. But manufacturing cuts across all of them. I just love that diversity, and not knowing what you're going to be speaking about next.

It was January 2020 when I finished my time at Optos as senior director of manufacturing to take up the role of chief operating officer at NMIS.

Are you seeing more women coming into manufacturing and engineering roles?

More women work in engineering than you might imagine, and I certainly think the numbers have grown over the years.

When I was at school, it was mostly boys in my classes, because I did science and maths. At university I did physics. There weren’t many girls there. But what I would say is that the girls who were there persevered.

Of the 100 or so people who started the laser physics course, ten of us were girls. Only about 30 people graduated, but there were still ten girls, so we were maybe a bit more determined, because this is what we had chosen.

But when I went to work, my first boss, the chief laser engineer, was a woman. There were a lot of women engineers at Optos, particularly in software engineering.

At NMIS, the proportion of women to men is the highest I have ever come across. I remember sitting in one meeting and it was all women around the table. And I just thought, “wow, this is really unusual for me”. It just brings a different dynamic to the workplace.

What is the opportunity for Scottish manufacturing, in your view?

Scotland has a huge, rich history of innovation, and challenging the status quo. We’re really good at thinking there must be a better way to do something.

We need to build on that and grow manufacturing businesses that are rooted in Scotland’s communities, creating high-value jobs, employing people – and reinvesting in those communities.

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