By Michelle Duggan, Inward Investment Manager, Invest North East England
Last month, I watched the Department for International Trade’s (DIT), Global Investment Summit with keen interest. As an Inward Investment professional, I welcome any opportunity that brings together global business leaders with the very best of innovation and capability in UK industries, but what really excites me is the emphasis on the technologies that will deliver the low carbon economy through energy transition and improved efficiency.
North East England has a long-standing reputation for automotive and advanced manufacturing capabilities, this has already attracted significant foreign direct investment (FDI), and we are now rapidly becoming a leader in the emerging electrification sector. As these industries have developed and become more competitive, they have turned to new technologies to develop innovative products, adapt processes and understand data.
The North East’s manufacturing sector is paving the way for the future innovations in technology; robotics, automation and artificial intelligence have been adopted in some of the region‘s largest manufacturers including Tharsus, Nissan, Avid Technologies and Komatsu.
The establishment and growth of our successful immersive technology cluster in the North East is no coincidence. AR and VR companies have identified the market opportunity within the modernising industrial base.
The Digital Catapult’s 2019 report on the immersive technology sector identified that the market for consumer spending on AR and VR will grow by 52.2%, but investment growth in immersive technologies in the engineering and manufacturing space is expected to be in excess of 120% by 2023.
PROTO in Gateshead is at the centre of regional and national excellence in immersive technologies and a catalyst for the further growth of the region’s immersive capabilities. The digital production facility, the first of its kind in Europe, partners with animators, film makers and games developers to create exciting and meaningful content. It also provides a hub for immersive tech and digital innovators, with over 40 companies located in the cluster, many of them attracted by the market opportunities in the wider North East economy.
There are lots of ways in which immersive technologies give an advantage to manufacturers and manufacturing supply chains. Research and design can be made more efficient through digital prototyping and product testing, training, data handling and risk management can all be improved through the application of immersive technologies.
Immersive technologies are also being used to benefit supply chain development by using simulation tools to speed up innovation in vehicle engineering. Manufacturers can develop new digital processes and procedures using VR simulation, reducing product development time and developing the workforce across the supply chain.
Developing skills and talent is at the forefront of the opportunity. Existing specialisms in visualization, data analytics and cloud computing can be exploited, and using immersive technologies generates valuable data for learning and modelling in future applications.
Data driven VR simulation company VRAI recently secured Offshore Wind Growth Partnership (OWGP) grant funding to develop better ways to train and scale the UK offshore wind workforce. VRAI, an Irish technology company that have established a base in PROTO, partnered with Durham University’s Energy Institute to secure £1.2m for innovation in renewable energy utilising immersive technology.
VRAI creates data driven VR simulation training for high hazard environments, with clients including the IAG in Heathrow Airport, the United Nations in Somalia, and the RAF, this innovative project will bring cutting edge virtual reality simulation training, more commonly used in military training, to the offshore wind industry. With great access to Dogger Bank, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, projects like this help to ensure continued viability for the North East’s renewable energy sector.
Engaging future talent and inspiring the next generation of skills will also be key to the long-term growth of the sustainable energy base in the region.
Britishvolt is on track to build the UK’s first full-scale Gigaplant in Northumberland and it is aiming to power future employment in the North East through the creation of a state-of-the-art education hub. Working with Dynamo North East and the Innovation SuperNetwork, British Volt has set an innovation challenge to the Immersive technology sector in the North East to help them create a unique facility. Located in Ashington, the centre will open early in 2022 and deliver accredited education and training using the latest technologies to support people into employment with Britishvolt. The Hub will also inspire the next generation of employees in the green energy sector and promote Britishvolt as a global employer, with a local community mindset.
Immersive technology is expected to be a £71 billion business by 2025. North East England is perfectly placed to capitalise on this high growth sector with local partners in automotive, rail, aerospace and sub-sea engineering all demanding the immersive technology of the future.
Last year we launched a high potential opportunity in immersive tech with DIT. This gives us a framework to work with DITs far-reaching network of in-market offices around the globe and a direct route to speak to potential international investors.
Importantly, our cluster and capabilities are now a key feature of the UK’s Investment Atlas, a portfolio of UK innovation strengths launched at the Global Investment Summit.
The transition to net zero presents a wide range of opportunities for the North East, for companies already located here and, importantly, for international companies looking to be part of the ‘green revolution.’ At the GIS, Bill Gates noted that in order to make the transition we need to change the way we make just about everything. The immersive tech cluster in the North East has the capability and ambition to drive innovation in industry and the combination of technology and advanced manufacturing strengths make North East England a unique investment proposition.
With such a strong legacy in AR/VR and XR technology, access to financial incentives and proximity to leading innovation centres, the North East is the ideal location for business to meet tomorrow’s sustainable growth demands today.