Software versus hardware

2 min read

Business Secretary Lord Peter Mandelson is UK manufacturing industry's new friend, or so it would appear, but he still needs to understand that metalcutting and metalforming remain relevant UK activities, judged by a recent report.

During his 3 December visit to the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), part of the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP), between Sheffield and Rotherham, he waxed lyrical about the modern manufacturing technology he saw there, reported The Guardian. In fact, he was there to talk about nuclear energy and the opportunity for Sheffield to become the UK's civil nuclear hub, and AMRC's part in that. But the particular object of admiration was the AMRC's 3D reality suite, where people can interact virtually with large mechanical structures, such as aircraft engines and, one presumes, nuclear power station designs. "This is the hi-tech stuff, as opposed to old-fashioned metal bashing," the paper reports the Business Secretary as announcing loudly. Well, that's nice, but if he had moved out into the central area of the AMRC, just down the corridor, in fact, there he would have seen high tech metalcutting machine tools fitted, incidentally, with specialist computers. Why is it that, if it's a computer, it is modern, while if it actually touches metal, it's old fashioned? The computer, 3D virtual reality in this case, is a means to an end; it is not the end in itself. The 3D reality suite allows real things to be designed and made better, in the sense that they can be proven to be assembled and maintained easily, but machines on the shopfloor actually cut the metal bits that are to be assembled and maintained. That's why the AMRC has so-called Tier 1 partners such as OEMs Rolls-Royce, Boeing, Messier-Dowty, BAE Systems – they want to cut metal better, which is why cutting tool suppliers like Sandvik Coromant, Technicut and Dormer Tools are also involved. And, incidentally, there's also the Advanced Forming Research Centre, in Strathclyde, Scotland, where companies are searching for ways to form metal better and more efficiently. Yes, jet engines and aircraft are high tech products, but they require the services of metalcutting and metalforming machine tools to produce them, not just computers. Nevertheless, The Guardian did underline that the Business Secretary's intention is "to revive Britain's flagging manufacturers and, with direct government help, lay the foundations for a hi-tech rebirth of industry". And the paper added: "He admits that Labour could – and should – have done more to arrest Britain's industrial decline, but he lays most of the blame on past Tory policies". Well, there had to be politics, of course – interesting, though, because the AMRC is built on the redeveloped Orgreave coal mine site, in an area of much activity at the time of the miners' strike during the Thatcher era, so the AMRC might not have been there but for her – something, perhaps, Lord Mandelson might not wish to ponder too deeply. That said, though, the Advanced Manufacturing Park, on which the AMRC and other high tech firms stand, was developed under a Labour Government. But to quote the Business Secretary directly, in a speech he made to the House of Lords later that same day: "…however important the services we supply and the invisibles we trade in, a huge part of our self identity and our creativity rest – and should rest – in what we make. I am glad that a commitment to invest in and cultivate our modern manufacturing capabilities in Britain is becoming the hallmark of BIS [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – Lord Mandelson's department]." Yes, and that still means cutting and forming metal. First published in Machinery, January 2010