A speech delivered by Secretary of State for Science, Innovation, and Technology, Michelle Donelan, at the Manufacturing Technologies Association exhibition on Tuesday 16 April.

The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP

Good afternoon.

It’s a pleasure to be here in Birmingham today.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak.

Today, the UK is one of the world’s leading manufacturing nations.

A century ago, the name of the game was quantity – the world’s leading manufacturing nations were trying to solve questions of size and scale – churning out more and more, faster and faster.

Today, the game has reversed, and those questions have largely been solved.

99% of consumer goods can be manufactured cheaply and at scale.

The real challenge today – and the one that will define the future of manufacturing – is quality. How do we design and produce the most innovative, intricate technologies like semiconductors for example, in a way that is cost effective?

This is where the UK’s unique manufacturing history and expertise comes into play.

Because manufacturing is so much more than what happens on the factory floor…

Invention… innovation… design… execution… scaling…

These are the ingredients of high-end manufacturing that the UK has in abundance.

As the former Universities Minister, I know first hand how our world-class higher education system forms the backbone of advanced manufacturing in the UK. Nearly a decade ago, before I was elected to Parliament, I created the Wiltshire Festival of Engineering. Sponsored by some of the world’s leading manufacturers, including Dyson and Airbus, we were able to inspire thousands of Wiltshire school children into careers in STEM.

The first debate I ever organised as a newly elected MP was about engineering.

And my priorities haven’t changed.

If anything, manufacturing matters even more.  

The past four years have brought with them a relentless barrage of stories about supply chain disruption.

From the coronavirus pandemic to the war in Ukraine and even a ship stuck in the Suez, the links that hold our economy together seem more fragile than ever.

And if these stories have taught us anything, it is that the ability to make our own things, on our own terms, is fundamental if we want to face our future head on.

And we must redouble our efforts to ensure that our strategic goods and technologies, like the machine tools on display this week, do not get into the hands of those who wish to do our nation harm.

So, as Secretary of State, I have put manufacturing front and centre in my mission to make Britain a science and tech superpower.

For me, science and technology are not just about labs and lecture theatres.

Innovation matters most when it is out there in the real world.

It’s only with the the commercialisation of new ideas, products, processes, and services, that we can create economic growth.

And it’s only through growing our economy, creating jobs, and driving discoveries that we can make tangible differences to people’s lives.

British manufacturing businesses are doing just that.

In fact, materials and manufacturing account for 47% of all business investment in R&D.

In towns and cities right across the country, you can find some of the most technologically advanced manufacturing in the world.  

In South Wales, we have the world’s first dedicated compound semiconductor cluster.

In Cambridge, we have the world’s most intensive science and tech cluster, home to Europe’s largest collection of biotechnology businesses – and almost 700 high-tech manufacturing firms. It’s the envy of the world, attracting talent and investment from across the globe.

Here in the West Midlands, we have a global centre for automotive R&D whose 5G coverage – the highest in the UK – is helping it to lead the way in developing the autonomous vehicles that will transform the way we travel.

Every pound that goes into British manufacturing is an investment in jobs for British people.

A vote of confidence in their ability to find the solutions to the immense challenges we face.

Our £1 billion semiconductor strategy is unlocking new investment in semiconductor manufacturing which will be fundamental for the net zero transition.

We are boosting life sciences manufacturing with over half a billion pounds, growing an industry that adds almost £20 billion to our economy each year and bolstering our ability to make vaccines that have already saved millions of lives in Britain and beyond.

Our Wireless Infrastructure Strategy sets out a plan to drive up the adoption of standalone 5G to transform manufacturing, unlocking the potential of technologies like robotics that could make our assembly lines infinitely more efficient, boosting productivity by billions.

These investments are the decisions of a bold and ambitious government that is prepared to bet big on the ability of British business to build tomorrow’s economy.

A government that, last year, announced a £4.5 billion plan to back advanced manufacturing industries like aerospace and automotive that employ hundreds of thousands of British people.

A government that is investing in technologies that don’t just change the things we make, but the way we make them.

And Britain has reaped the rewards as a result. Between 2010 and 2021, the UK saw the fastest manufacturing productivity growth in the G7.

But if we want that trend to continue, then we cannot afford to slow down. We must stick to the plan, not go back to square one.

There is one technology, more than any other, that promises to transform manufacturing in the decades to come: AI.

AI can help us to make enormous efficiencies in machinery and in supply chains, acting early to prevent days of lost time.

It can reduce accidents that put workers at risk and test the quality of goods far quicker than any human could.

It can forecast demand for existing products – and even design new ones that appeal to untapped parts of the market.

All in all, AI promises nothing less than a revolution for manufacturing.

And there is no reason why that revolution should not start in the UK.

Today, we have the third largest AI market in the world – a market that is predicted to grow to over one trillion dollars by the end of the decade.

Much of that success is thanks to that unique culture of innovation I talked about earlier – a culture where entrepreneurs are unafraid to risk failure in pursuit of success.  

But, I believe, it is also testament to a Prime Minister and government that is prepared to take its own risks.

Rather than sitting on the fence, playing ‘wait and see,’ we decided to step up and support the technology right from the get-go.

Over the last decade, we have invested more than £3.5 billion in AI.

And in the last year, when the extraordinary capabilities of large language models have captured the world’s attention, we kick-started the global conversation on AI safety, hosting the first ever global summit on AI safety. Next month I will travel to Korea to co-host the second summit, and we have the France safety summit planned for early next year.

But I have always been clear that, while we have one eye on safety, the other must always be on opportunity.

And that opportunity must be open to everyone.

Whether you are a small tech start-up looking to scale and succeed in the UK, or a family-owned manufacturing firm looking for ways to stay competitive in a new era, I believe that artificial intelligence has something to offer.

That is why I set out a pro-safety, pro-innovation approach to regulating AI that will drive growth and create jobs across the country.  

That same mission drove me to set up the AI Opportunity Forum, where we’re working with some of the biggest industry players to encourage the adoption of AI across all businesses, including smaller firms looking to harness the power of artificial intelligence to innovate and grow.

Some of those firms will benefit from BridgeAI, too, which is supporting British businesses in high-growth sectors like construction and logistics to boost their productivity – and compete on the global stage.

But no matter how big your business – no matter whether you are designing chips, developing life-saving drugs, or building the next generation of green, electric cars – there is one need that never changes: skills.

Skills have always been close to my heart. Another one of the drums I’ve been banging for 15 years, a skilled workforce is the foundation stone to everything in our economy.

If we want British businesses to grow – and if we want that growth to deliver benefits to every British person – then we need people with the skills to succeed in industries of tomorrow.

To ensure that where you are from does not determine where you can get to.

So last month, I announced over one billion pounds in support for young people studying PhDs across our five critical technologies – our largest ever investment.

But you shouldn’t need a PhD to benefit from British science and tech.

I want to bring its benefits to people from all walks of life.

That is why we are providing new support for small businesses looking to upskill their employees for the age of AI – and launching a pilot scheme to open apprenticeship pathways into our growing quantum industry.

I know that there are thousands of apprentices here today. Some of you have even trained at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult my department supports, whose excellent work I have seen for myself at the MTC just down the road in Coventry. I look forward to meeting some of you later this afternoon.

Because it is talented people like you who hold the key to the kind of sustainable economic growth that will see Britain succeed in the century to come.

Science and tech can sometimes seem far removed from the reality of our daily lives.

But behind every one of the breakthroughs we have seen is a person with an idea – and the skills to turn it into a reality.

The same will be true for the breakthroughs still to come.

And I have no doubt that some of the people who will be behind them are here in Birmingham this week.

Some of you will take up jobs with the fast-growing firms who are exhibiting here.

Others, I’m sure, will use that experience to start innovative businesses of your own.

But, no matter what path you take, this government will do all it can to support you. 

Because, in your hands, Britain’s manufacturing future is bright.

Published 17 April 2024