CPI based at facility at NETPark is one of seven centres that make up the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. The Catapult network is a £350m government-backed initiative designed to assist companies in taking innovative manufacturing projects from concept to reality. CPI opens up its state-of-the-art facilities to companies with potentially transformative ideas, and gives them the support and business advice they need to make them happen.
The creation of an innovative product or process can be a long and risky process.
A company must demonstrate that the science and the method is feasible, find money for equipment and expertise, and persevere through the prototyping and mass-manufacturing phases. For most of this process income will be scarce or non-existent. That’s even before it gets to the challenges of being a sustainable, commercially viable organisation with interested customers. CPI helps companies with big ideas to make their way through that ‘valley of death’. Its open innovation model provides companies with access to its facilities, alongside experts from academia, business and government to create the environment for companies to prove their process at market scale.
“We provide the infrastructure and environment for small and medium enterprises to grow”, said CPI’s Dr Jon Helliwell, Director of Printable Electronics. “A lot of SMEs can’t afford this type of kit, so we provide the structure for product and process development, as well as access to finance and access to equipment. A lot of companies struggle for investment, particularly in the UK, but once you’ve moved past the Proof of Concept stage and have a prototype, you have a lot more momentum.”
There are currently 227 scientists, business managers, process development staff and engineers at CPI’s sites in the North East of England. All of this expertise is directed at companies who need a range of insights and experience to make their theory into a commercial success. When working on products and processes, CPI makes use of the Technology Readiness Level scale, a metric developed by NASA in the 1970s to assess the maturity of a technology.
Jon Helliwell said: “The CPI business model is about taking clients from ideas to pilot production. Once the company has completed its initial research and come up with a technology concept, it is able to use CPI’s laboratories, expertise and equipment to validate its processes. CPI has invested more than £90m in its facilities, giving companies access to equipment and space that they would otherwise be unable to afford. Companies pay a day rate to use our assets. Because we’re operating in such niche markets, a lot of the equipment is one-of-a-kind.”
Once a prototype has been built and tested, CPI enables companies to create a small run of products, rather than invest in large-scale production too early.
“In the commercial world, you can’t stop the production line, but at CPI you can”, comments Jon, “If you’re working at batch scale, it’s fine to produce only around eight to 10 units and test if they work. If they do, you can then go on to a pilot production scale of around 50 and move into pilot manufacturing.”
Having the idea is great but having a market demand for that is essential, and another area in which CPI can provide assistance is in locating funding and markets. The organisation has strong links with bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), and can identify relevant and useful funding streams for companies looking for much-needed cash.
CPI’s team of business managers are heavily integration interact with companies in automotive, print and packaging, healthcare and aerospace supply chains to identify potential markets for innovative companies.
“It’s all well and good having technology that works, but is there a market demand for it? Those close to a project are interested in the technological properties, but the end users are interested in the solution, and what it can do. We’re trying to get demand from the market rather than pushing technology. If you can get end user demand, the rest will follow. If we’re working with a company on materials formulation, a project manager will be assigned to the project. We’ll have process operators, materials scientists, business managers and engineers involved, and make sure the products are viable for the commercial world.”