3D printing, composite technologies, plastic electronics: sometimes it feels like science fiction is becoming science reality. And it’s not just the average person struggling to stay up –to-date with new technology. As new research from the UK Commission of Employment and Skills shows, the pace of change in some of our leading manufacturing industries is presenting a real challenge for the skills of our people and the capacity of our training providers. (UKCES has produced some new infographics on this very topic focusing on the aerospace and automotive sectors.)
New technologies are increasingly specialised, but at the same time increasingly interconnected. These days, no single firm has all the requisite skills and experience to go it alone. Nowhere is this clearer than in the production of cars and planes, which are pushing performance to the limit.
Building an airliner isn’t just about nuts and bolts anymore. Composite technologies, which combine different fibres together, are making planes lighter and stronger. 3D printing (or more properly ‘additive manufacturing’), is a fast-growing new technology set to radically alter the way many components are produced. This disruptive innovation is set to alter the way many materials are manufactured, drastically cutting production times and removing the need for traditional techniques.
For many aerospace and automotive firms, this is creating demand for people with new skills and knowledge. There’s likely to be a growing need for engineers and R&D personnel with composites experience. People with CAD design skills and knowledge of 3D printing processes will be in high demand. Bigger companies are starting to recognise this and are recruiting from a global talent pool. But our research shows that smaller firms typically face greater challenges in finding the right staff and meeting their workforce training and development needs.
Smaller technological firms also have different recruitment needs: they often require multi-disciplined recruits to undertake additional supporting roles like IT, Quality Assurance and Business Development on top of their day jobs. Take the Plastic Electronics industry, for example, where electronic materials are printed on flexible surfaces. For many industry employers, most new candidates are sourced internationally and if a product takes off commercially, production is likely to move abroad, where there is a plentiful supply of readily-available talent.
New technologies bring exciting opportunities for the UK, but if we lack the skills to harness them, these opportunities will be lost. We need to develop technological expertise within the UK and enable smaller businesses to access this talent pool.
Whether you’re a training provider or a high-tech firm the key to making science fiction science fact for the UK economy is collaboration. Aligning elements of course provision to business need is a must for the higher education industry to continue to attract new students and keep content up-to-date. For businesses, building better networks with research centres/education providers requires resource, but it also helps firms tap into the latest technological developments and key talent which would otherwise remain elusive. Access to this expertise can make the difference between staying ahead of the competition and falling behind in the race to commercialise new technologies.