The 2016 MATRIX Advanced Manufacturing, Materials & Engineering (AMME) Report says that innovative engineering and manufacturing businesses across Northern Ireland have the potential to transform the economy.

The AMME sector is export and R&D intensive and includes sectors such as aerospace, polymers and materials handling as well as some highly specialist companies – all with a focus on advanced manufacturing, materials and engineering. There are over 2,000 such businesses in Northern Ireland, employing over 40,000 people, paying salaries 26% above the NI average and generating sales worth £7.2bn in 2014.

The sector creates a high demand for skilled workers, particularly those with STEM qualifications. Northern Ireland has a strong manufacturing heritage and there is still a higher concentration of manufacturing businesses here than in the UK as a whole. During the economic downturn, the manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland kept on track better than other UK regions. For example, since the 2012 recession the NI manufacturing sector has created 6,500 new jobs – nearly three times the UK growth rate.

The report, which was launched today at the Stormont Hotel, was produced by a panel of experts selected from industry, government and academia.

Speaking at the launch, MATRIX Vice Chair Dr. Rob Hardeman said, “The contribution that AMME companies make to the Northern Ireland economy is truly impressive and a testament to the quality of our advanced engineers. Northern Ireland’s AMME capability should not be understated – it is a powerful force.

“Yes, manufacturing has faced some difficult times in recent years, and it will continue to do so. But by and large, NI’s AMME businesses have survived the recession – they have emerged more confident than before and are once again investing in growth.

“The challenges they have identified to us in this study should be considered in the context of a sector that can see enormous development opportunity and the MATRIX panel wants to impress upon government the need to respond to the recommendations within this report, so that NI’s full AMME potential can be realised.”

The study drew on insights from AMME business leaders, academic partners, representative associations and government bodies, both locally and nationally. This, combined with the use of data from a wide range of sources, revealed a surprisingly high level of sustained R&D activity and export achievement.

The MATRIX study revealed several diverse subsectors – aerospace, polymers, materials handling, agri engineering, automotive and construction products – as well as a significant number (around a third of the top 300 companies) which are highly specialized individual companies.  But despite the diversity, when these companies were asked what mattered most to them, there were three consistent themes – skills, costs and sectoral development.

Welcoming the report, Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said, “AMME businesses need to become more visible – both in terms of its broad appeal as a desirable career choice and in terms of show-casing the contribution the highly innovative sector makes to the regional and national economies.  Skills challenges aren’t unique to AMME, nor indeed to Northern Ireland. Concerns relating to quality and quantity of skills are universal across advanced manufacturing and other technology-rich sectors and economies around the world.

“Given the rapid rate of change manufacturing faces today, whether as a result of increasing levels of automation, customization, personalization, servitisation or re-manufacturing, it is almost inevitable that our skills base will face consistent and increasing pressures.   Our response to these pressures should be both creative and robust – and always informed by industry.”

The MATRIX report makes several recommendations based on the study’s findings, including:

  • STEM subjects should be taught to school children through practical, hands on learning to allow them to develop problem solving skills. Vocational training for youth and continuing education for employees should be supported seamlessly through schools, FE and HE colleges.
  • Industry-university engagement needs to become more flexible and dynamic and businesses should be encouraged to seek out collaborative opportunities based purely on expertise, with funding for collaborative research directed to best meet the needs and growth of the business. Better development and support of sub sectoral clusters within AMME who want to work together – a pilot around the application of Aerospace initiatives to polymer manufacturers is suggested.
  • The development of a tailored AMME package of support (similar to Liverpool’s LEP advanced manufacturing initiative), covering R&D&I, skills, trade, etc. and incentivising collaboration.