The Manufacturing Renaissance: Spotlight on South Yorkshire

Pete Sorsby, Deputy Fund Principal – NPIF Debt

16th May, 2022

Sheffield Steel remains the international benchmark for quality, and South Yorkshire owes much of its pre-eminence as a metal manufacturing hub to its geology: iron ore and coal were mined from the hills surrounding the city, and nearby quarries provided the sandstone that allowed grindstones to sharpen blades. At the outset of the industrial revolution, Sheffield’s five rivers were perfect for the water-powered grinding mills, and the conurbation known today as the South Yorkshire Region is now witness to a new manufacturing renaissance.

South Yorkshire metal working can still be classified into its historic forms. There are manufacturers who produce light metals, like cutlery and edge tools, and those who work in heavy metals, including steel and armaments. Some, such as relatively new Mercia investee Tinsley Bridge, do both.

Tinsley Bridge’s manufacturing work has a pleasant symmetry, as they produce both kinds of metal that Sheffield is historically known for and provide a link between the region’s past and its future. The Group was a spin-off of British Steel in 1987, and today it occupies premises in Sheffield’s historic industrial corridor, where over 200 staff are employed. Tinsley Bridge is best known for its work in the automotive industry; its engineers invented the parabolic leaf spring, now used in over 80% of all truck suspensions worldwide. In addition to serving the automotive sector, Tinsley Bridge draws on its 150 years of expertise to provide engineering solutions to the energy, steel, nuclear, defence and rail industries. It also makes knives!

While the entire world watched the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the American engineers working to combat the environmental disaster realised that only Tyzack shear blades – manufactured by Tinsley Bridge – were suitable to cut the riser pipe that connected the rig to the seabed.

Cutlery – knives, shears, scythes – has always been a serious business in Sheffield. The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was established in the 17th century to promote the standards and quality of Sheffield manufactured steel products. It is still in existence today; Rachel Abbott, the managing director of Mercia’s investee company Cobra Sport International, is a Freeman of the Company. Cobra Sport International makes steel exhausts for performance vehicles, has experienced accelerated growth over the past four years and is now considered a leading manufacturer of performance sports exhausts.

The region experienced a prolonged period of decline and stagnation after the decline of the coal, steel and manufacturing sectors in the 1980s. This decline was partially due to the region’s historic dependence upon a small number of large-scale manufacturers. A consensus from local policy stakeholders to diversify the region’s economy in the late 1990s influenced the foundation of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in 2001 at the site of a former coal mine in Rotherham. The AMRC was founded to apply the region’s traditional expertise in metallurgy and engineering to new materials; its first collaboration was with Boeing. Today, the AMRC partners with over 125 companies, including Boeing, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems and Airbus, as well as local SMEs.

Advanced manufacturing is a far cry from the rigidity and grind of a factory production line that we typically associate with conventional manufacturing. Instead of directly competing with manufacturers in countries with lower wages and lower overheads, advanced manufacturers in mature economies create value differently. They position themselves at the forefront of innovation in materials and engineering processes derived from research and require a highly skilled workforce.

Tribosonics, a business that received its first investment from Mercia in 2020, provides a strong example of how South Yorkshire businesses are using university research to create products with the potential for profound impact. Tribosonics designs and produces smart sensors that are attached to industrial equipment to monitor wear and tear. This data is then used to support its clients in the manufacturing, power generation and transport sectors to be more efficient and sustainable. Data visibility like this can also inform the development of more sustainable manufacturing equipment and parts. As friction, and the degradation it causes, accounts for 23% of all global energy use, Tribosonics’ technology has immense potential to reduce carbon emissions and create a positive environmental impact.

Following the early success of the AMRC, the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP) was founded nearby at Waverly in 2001, with businesses including Rolls Royce and McLaren establishing premises. Multinationals like these depend on a reliable local supply chain for operational efficiency and to meet customer demand. Their presence in the AMP means SMEs in the region can benefit by supplying local components for products sold internationally. Mercia’s investee Castings Technology International is one of these SMEs.

Castings Technology International has been based at the AMP since the Park’s foundation. In the subsequent decade, it became known as a leading international manufacturer of high-integrity metal castings and is a critical part of the supply chain servicing global multibillion-pound contracts. The investment Casting Technology International received was simultaneous with a management buyout from the University of Sheffield. This buyout was recognised at the Insider Sheffield City Region Awards as the Deal of the Year in 2021 for saving jobs, contributing to job creation and following in the legacy of the Sheffield Forgemaster’s deals of the 1990s.

The AMP area’s continuing dynamism resulted in the foundation of the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District in 2015. This is a 2,000-acre area that encompasses the AMP and the AMRC. Innovation districts are epicentres of collaboration between university researchers and the private sector – additionally relevant to Mercia’s investing thesis that has seen a number of university spinouts realise exceptional success. Apart from the innovative businesses that were founded in these locations, these regions are also exciting places to live, study (at school or university level), work and play. In my role as a Governor for a Multi-Academy Trust in the region, I am already seeing the impact the district is having on local young people. When I grew up, many of my friends went down the pit or went into manufacturing. Then the coal mines went, the steel industry went and the area went through decades of underinvestment. Now local young people are living and being educated in what is one of the UK’s centres for cutting-edge science and technology, with continued growth and employment opportunities in sectors such as electronics, material innovation and renewable energy.

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