3.1.1. Productive nation: Catalysing growth

As set out in the Industrial Strategy, the UK economy critically depends on the ability to develop and commercialise new products, processes, services and technologies. Ensuring future growth and increasing UK productivity and earning power means investing in potentially disruptive research that can drive business innovation or trigger development of new business models. The UK does this already, but must do it even better.

Cross-disciplinary working and business engagement are key to the way we exploit the pivotal role engineering and physical sciences has in enabling impact from the biological, environmental and medical sciences through to the social sciences and humanities. One example is our activities in whole-systems approaches such as the circular economy, particularly in plastics, where we work with almost all UKRI councils.

Improved productivity is also underpinned by a highly skilled, numerate UK workforce. Our training investments in industrially relevant PhDs, fellowships and early-career researchers will target needs, to develop such a workforce that draws on a diverse talent pool (see Sections 3.2.2 and 3.3.3).

To deliver this priority, EPSRC will invest in:

Achieving sustainability through circularity of resources: Adopting a more circular use of resources to deliver improved productivity while reducing supply risk, pollution, CO2 emissions and waste, an area of importance for the Clean Growth Grand Challenge.

Manufacturing futures: How do we exploit advances in industrial digitalisation and automation to transform manufacturing processes and business models to build a more competitive UK industry?

Commercialisation and application of quantum technologies: Extending the UK's world-leading position in Quantum Technologies and making the UK first choice as a place to research, innovate and commercialise Quantum Technologies as identified in the AI Sector Deal.

Identification of new opportunities in materials research and technology: Working with academic leaders and business stakeholders to identify where new thinking in materials research is needed to open up new opportunities across business sectors.

Long-term ambitions

We will build on our strong relationships with business, universities, the Catapults and other intermediary bodies to work with UKRI partners to maximise our investments. Our long-term aspiration is to ensure that:

  • new UK-manufactured products, processes, services and technologies are demonstrably and routinely derived from investments in engineering and physical sciences research enabled by friction-free, and in some cases more rapid routes from discovery to commercialisation, and the development of effective business models. Success will be reflected in an increase in the volume of innovation and quicker translation from insight to innovation.
  • a stronger role in the shaping of industrial/government policy on new technologies, such that it is informed and strengthened by our investments. Success will be reflected by an increased involvement in policy development across our community.

Near-term actions

In 2019-20 we will:

  • work with the materials research community, business partners, Innovate UK and the Henry Royce Institute to identify emerging opportunities in materials. Develop at least one Strategic Priorities Fund bid and one Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund bid in the next six months
  • deliver, with NERC and Innovate UK, the £20 million Plastics Research and Innovation Fund to explore new ideas and innovations that can bring changes to plastics manufacturing and consumption patterns in the UK
  • support UK-US collaborative proposals in engineering, ICT and manufacturing via the lead-agency agreement with the National Science Foundation. We will commit up to £5 million/year and the NSF up to US$3 million/year through this scheme
  • lead on quantum technology and collaborate with partners in the National Quantum Technologies Programme to recommission the Quantum Hubs and establish the £77 million National Quantum Computing Centre to help tackle the AI & Data Grand Challenge
  • invest up to around £20 million across projects, networks and fellowships in manufacturing and in supporting cross-sector working between universities and business. Manufacturing futures will be a particular focus
  • deliver with colleagues across UKRI (lead Council in bold - values quoted are total for UKRI):
    Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (all with IUK): Robots for a Safer World (EPSRC: £93 million); and Quantum Technology (EPSRC: £20 million).

Case studies

Modelling software shapes industrial breakthroughs

Originally developed by physicists at Cambridge with our funding, CASTEP is a modelling code based on quantum mechanics that has transformed the development of new and better materials. Over 1,000 companies, in the chemicals, pharmaceuticals, semiconductor manufacture, oil and gas and other sectors, are using the software. There have been over 10,500 citations to date, while over 300 patent applications refer to CASTEP. In 1995, it was licensed to Cambridge-based software company Accelrys (now BIOVIA) and is currently quoted to be worth around US$42 million in sales. In tandem with 'real' experiments, the 'virtual' experiments that CASTEP enables mean R&D teams can model anything based on atoms, understand how it works and generate ideas on how to improve it.

Testing tool helps transform transport

EPSRC-funded research at Loughborough led to a novel measurement technique for accurate, reliable testing of the shear properties of advanced composite materials for lighter, more fuel-efficient transport. Composites could save billions of pounds and are widely used but need to perform in challenging environments. Current standard tests include a big built-in error margin, resulting in components either being manufactured heavier or costing more than necessary. The new testing methodology, Double Beam Shear (DBS), delivers more precise and reliable results, so composite aircraft and cars can be designed without the need to add excess weight, without compromising safety. Working closely with industrial partners such as GKN Aerospace, DBS successfully underwent proof-of-concept testing across seven independent sites. It has now become a new ISO standard and Loughborough offers a DBS testing consultancy service.