The materials sector…is it really?

Holding hand drawn question marks

I’ve been with Innovate UK for just ten months but before that spent all of my working life in industry and specifically in materials manufacturing businesses.

I have occasionally referred to the ‘materials sector’ as if it is one body and I’ve heard others use the same phrase. Yet you don’t need to be a material scientist to know that there is a difference between glass and graphene or steel and polyethylene.

So, is it really a sector and, if so, why doesn’t it appear as one?

The missing link

Strong yellow chain links

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First let’s confidently approach the huge, grey, herbivorous mammal in the room…the UK has no clear, coherent materials strategy. Not at a national level nor at a sectoral level. Various strategies exist (of varying age and heritage) across the sub-sector councils such as the Metals Council, the Composites Leadership Forum and others, often valiantly attempting to tackle similar challenges.

Whether you are talking about traditional or frontier materials and everything in between, there is no ‘one truth’ describing why materials are strategically important to the nation. There have been worthy attempts and a plethora of vision documents, roadmaps, etc. that often obliquely reference materials, but still no clearly articulated UK materials strategy.

A potted history

Why is that? I hear things like ‘government gets cars and planes, but they just don’t get materials’. Is that really the problem? Long before my time at Innovate UK, the government did seem to ‘get materials’. The Department of Trade and Industry, as it was then, published a strategy for materials back in 2006 as part of the Materials Innovation and Growth Team initiative.

Later in 2012 advanced materials and nanotechnologies were listed as one of the eight great technologies by the then Chancellor as part of the Industrial Strategy. In 2014 to 2015 the government helped establish the Advanced Materials Leadership Council, which published a series of vision papers, was disbanded and replaced by a new, more agile version in 2017 to 2018, which was equally short-lived.

Hand holding light bulb, digital network

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In more recent years…a materials leadership vacuum! And just at the time when arguably the UK and the planet need materials innovation more than ever.

While no national strategy exists, the technical comparisons where one material type pits itself against another are abundant (for example, ‘composites are lighter than metals’ or ‘polymers are lighter than glass’). We all know there is no universal material solution. Seemingly each sub-sector feels the need to jockey for position and to demonstrate their value at the expense of their material cousins. This is of no real strategic value and conveys the appearance of a fragmented sector.

Come on folks…do you see other sectors operating like that? Not generally! End-use sectors seem to grasp the concept of working together on the things that matter to them all then speaking with one voice. As a result, they have clarity, gain credibility, and get heard.

Some shout louder

In the case of materials, some seem to get heard more than others, that’s evident. Perhaps it is the size of some sub-sectors, their heritage or having been previously nationalised that give connections into government that can be nurtured and maintained? Perhaps they are just fundamentally important, economically, societally and, or, technically.

I certainly don’t doubt the importance of iron and steel, regionally or nationally, in enabling construction and infrastructure, mobility, etc. I believe strongly that without our base in that industry we would be poorly placed to develop and innovate the next generation of ferrous metal alloys for instance. But ‘other materials are available’ and it can equally be argued that we also must focus on new materials to be successful in the drive towards a net zero future. A strategy brings balance.

Perhaps the movement of people in and out of ministerial roles with responsibility for materials, science, etc. doesn’t help. This can lead to different approaches …but be fair. With the best will in the world material scientists themselves struggle to keep abreast of every new challenge and opportunity in the sector. So why should we expect others to be any more on top of it? That’s why one voice is important.

Team working, connecting pieces of gears

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Unite with one voice!

My conclusion is simple, we need a UK materials strategy! The call to action is less simple.

Those that need to hear and understand why we need a UK materials strategy do not want to hear from a dozen or more sub-sectors all with different arguments and interests. Ultimately nobody wins and others get handed the agenda.

So, can the UK materials sector:

  • corral and put individual interests to one side momentarily to serve the greater good?
  • cooperate to focus on national challenges (and there are some big ones with equally big prizes!) and economic outcomes?
  • speak with one voice?

If we can then we may just inch toward a national materials strategy.

As with so many aspects of life, there are things you can control and others you can’t. The materials community should remember and celebrate its similarities while appreciate its differences. It must recapture the materials agenda and work as one toward solutions.

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