Innovation in Manufacturing Highlights from 2019

Posted on: 14/01/2020

Looking back at the innovations and collaborations across the KTN’s Manufacturing team throughout 2019


As we start a new year and a new decade, the KTN Manufacturing team – Ben Peace, Kevin Hallas, Abigail Hird, Nicole Ballantyne and Malcolm Harold – reflect on the past 12 months and some of the most interesting #innovations and #collaborations they have enjoyed.

As a nation, the UK constantly innovates to remain competitive. A recent article in The Manufacturer referenced a report from MakeUK /Santander that highlighted that the UK is the 9th largest manufacturing nation in the world, a fact that would surprise many.

Within KTN’s scope of ‘helping manufacturers to innovate and innovators to manufacture’, the Manufacturing team has met some interesting companies in 2019 and here are just a few:

Ben Peace, Head of Manufacturing at KTN

One company that impressed me in 2019 was the Caledonian Tree Company that produce the Air-Pot. They are very modest and make what is, on the face of it, a very simple product (a vessel for horticulture with holes that encourage root growth). However when we visited their HQ and manufacturing site in Midlothian, Scotland, it quickly became clear to us that the product is the result of some really good home-grown (excuse the pun!) science combined with practical knowledge built up over many years. Though the team had limited background in manufacturing they set up a production line ten years ago and now export globally, which is brilliant.

KTN’s manufacturing team helped the company assess and refine some of their ideas for future innovation using a couple of the tools we’ve developed – the Innovation Canvas and 30 ideas to kickstart your circular economy business. The visit came about through some joint working with Mabbett under the Zero Waste Scotland initiative.

The Air-Pot product – a vessel for horticulture with holes that encourage root growth

The development of tools, frameworks and guides is one way that KTN is working to distil and share our knowledge, and companies like Air-Pot can access tools like the innovation canvas for free.

We’ve seen this year how several manufacturing companies now use it as a matter of course to assess and refine the virtues of any innovation project. We’ve also started to work with regional stakeholders and agencies to train their staff in the use of these tools.

Kevin Hallas, Knowledge Transfer Manager

LBBC Group are a very successful autoclave engineering and manufacturing business, in the top 100 SME exporters chart and known for supplying machines into aerospace. They’re working on two big ideas:

LBBC Baskerville has developed a neat bench-top autoclave for corrosion testing out of a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) with the University of Leeds. The KTP Associate has joined the company and we’ve helped the late stage R&D with some introductions into the laboratory and materials world.

The second big idea is Resomation, otherwise known as water cremation. Using their core capability, the team has developed a full system for this revolutionary new end of life option. It’s had success in the USA, there’s interest in Europe and hopefully the UK will embrace the concept too. The funeral market is not easy, but with good environmental credentials this could be the right idea at the right time in 2020.

LBBC are just about to start their third KTP.

To find out more about KTPs visit Graduate opportunities and open KTP associate roles can be found here.

Abigail Hird, Knowledge Transfer Manager

We visited Belfast to explore manufacturing innovation with some interesting local companies. Our goal was to carry out some user testing on a revised version of the diagnostic tool, 4Manufacturing, with the expert Invest NI team.

One of the companies we visited was Integrated Timber solution. There were no flash board rooms, expensive suits or state-of-the-art tech – just a pallet factory, warm hospitality, unforgettable scones, friendly dogs and innovation by the truckload.

The owners (Michael and John) had bought a second-hand automotive robot. They taught themselves to programme, programmed it to deliver performing pallet-making tasks then, once confident, sourced another ten robots to create a fully automated pallet production line. The investment was minimal – the new line broke even within months. The knowledge of programming was developed and retained by the owners and will be applied to other processes within the business.

The innovation in the company was a natural consequence of curious, entrepreneurial management who were eager to learn. They recognised the opportunity, started small and didn’t over-complicate things. This just proves that robotics and automation doesn’t have to be expensive, onerous or involve a team of consultants and the approach by Integrated Timber Solutions demonstrates that adopting technologies to improve productivity can be rewarding and affordable.

We are eager to work with more companies who would like to find affordable ways to adopt new technology. We can help you figure out if the innovation you’re considering makes sense and, if you’re ready for it, we can connect you to the right people. Some examples of the types of support we can provide include help you source second-hand robots (or other tech), assistance with identifying and securing funding and introductions to appropriate expertise.

Nicole Ballantyne, Knowledge Transfer Manager

Innovation Alley as part of Smart Factory Expo was an opportunity for small, young tech businesses to showcase their innovations to the manufacturing sector. Smart Factory Expo is one of the largest exhibitions in the manufacturing calendar in the UK.

The innovators were given a small booth for two days, supported through sponsorship from Innovate UK. Lots of great companies were there, and it’s hard to highlight just one. One of the interesting ones was Geomiq, a deceptively simple innovation to connect buyers and manufacturers on a digital manufacturing platform. There is a great deal of ambition here; trying to reshore parts manufacturing by helping firms to quote for jobs quickly, filling spare capacity at the time that capacity exists, and therefore winning jobs that would otherwise go overseas. We’ve seen a few examples this year that relatively small changes in costs and prices (USA steel tariffs for instance) can make a big difference to decisions on manufacturing location. Geomiq’s hypothesis that the supply chain can be digitally streamlined feels like it could be very timely going into 2020. Find out what Geomiq thought of Innovation Alley here.

Malcolm Harold, Digital Manufacturing Specialist

Sometimes the simple ideas are often the best. One inventor that really stood out for me this year was Mick Carrington. Engineers and mechanics spend one third of their day trying to release rusty and seized nuts and bolts, particularly when dealing with old cars and equipment. Mick Carrington approached KTN with his idea for an oversized spanner using shock loading to help loosen the rusty bolts (the same principle could be used to help tighten the bolt as well) and through my support and guidance created a solution that is market focused. Mick took a prototype of the product to Halfords, who tested it and agreed that it was a good fit for their product range. It’s now close to being stocked in over 400 Halford stores UK wide.

The innovation in this project is simple. Using his former knowledge of working in a power station, Mick identified a simple solution to a very common problem. It demonstrates that not all innovations have to be expensive, complicated or technical. Sometimes the most common problems cause the most hassle but the overall solutions can be relatively easy to resolve.

It’s safe to say this new invention will have many impacts, helping lots of people with an age old problem. When you’re producing prototypes, finding manufacturers and trying to get traction for your ideas, it’s easy to get deflated. A friendly and discrete sounding board at the KTN can be just what’s needed to find the right direction and get your innovation project back on the road to success.


So if you are a manufacturer looking to innovate or an innovator looking to manufacture, why not speak to one of the manufacturing team at the KTN who will help you on your journey and connect you to the right people along the way.

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