OPINION: Hi-Tech – Is North Devon ahead or behind the curve?

Node Enterprise Centre at Roundswell, Barnstaple

Node Enterprise Centre at Roundswell, Barnstaple - Credit: Paul Box

As we start to explore the new world of opportunities post-Brexit and living with Covid, it is very clear that economic growth and the future prosperity for our businesses and communities will be led by technological advancement. 

There is a tsunami of activity that surrounds us which, unless we are vigilant, could overwhelm us.  Take just one example of this. The world of artificial intelligence is progressing at a frightening pace, the current estimate is that this could replace a third of current jobs, particularly in vulnerable sectors such as health, insurance, finance and many areas of manufacturing. 

It is also estimated that, unless at least 8 out of 10 of our current employees either have, or are trained to have, digital skills, we will continue to lose the battle on productivity improvements – as we stand, we are at least 10% behind the UK average on this measure. 

There could not have been a starker illustration of how businesses who are tech savvy have prospered, than to see that Apple are now valued at $3 Trillion – greater than the total GDP of the UK.  It was only 18 months ago that the company was valued at $2 Trillion.  This growth can partly be explained by the benefits they have derived from the pandemic but principally because they have embraced, and indeed got ahead of, the market for emerging technologies. 

So how well equipped is Northern Devon to respond to this?  Or, are we reliant on importing this knowledge and using technology advisors based outside the area? 

In reality, what we should be doing is talking more loudly about the progress Northern Devon has made in building its research and development capabilities. It is inspiring to discover what we already have within the sub region. To illustrate this, there are three excellent examples of establishments which give us a leading edge.  

Petroc have recently fully launched their new South West Institute of Technology.  This is a huge addition to the academic facilities available at the college. Importantly, however, this brings in a wide range of additional skills including a number of partner organisations, such as, the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth and four Further Education colleges including Bridgwater and Taunton, Plymouth, Exeter and Truro/ Penwith. 

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This collaboration has resulted in the development of state-of-the-art facilities for training in a wide range of technical subjects and to enable Northern Devon to respond to the needs of the next generation of employers and entrepreneurs, who will require highly skilled technicians and engineers.  The new institute operates both physically and virtually.  It can therefore cover the whole of the South West. 

The new premises comprises two specialist facilities.  The Engineering Centre, which has cleanroom fabrication capabilities, electronics design, manufacturing and testing laboratories, additive technologies and production robotics.  The second suite is dedicated to digital science, enabling the development of virtual environments, drone experimentation and access to the latest specification networking software and data analytics.  There is a great expectation that this centre will be producing high quality results within 12-18 months.  This is a remarkable achievement by the Petroc Team led by Sean Mackney, Bill Blythe and their in-house experts. 

NodeCowork, Roundswell, Barnstaple.  This brilliant facility is the brainchild and product of some advance thinking by the Local Authority and Gareth Jones, the CEO and Founder.  They astutely managed to navigate the route to securing part of the last round of European Funding before this door closed.  Whilst the general rational is that the space provides independent opportunities for a wide range of businesses, the priority here is to attract and encourage local hi-tech businesses to allow good ideas to mature into solid business opportunities.  The experience around the South West of other “Innovation” centres is that this is a key reason why we have a developing clutch of leading edge agile businesses and are attracting young talent and the interest of major investors. 

PARC, Bideford.  The PARC Laboratory is for many a well-kept secret. It has however been operating for over 20 years. It provides leading edge research and development capabilities, particularly in climatic and mechanical testing. Its range of activities includes the ability to provide trial facilities in areas such as vibration, accelerated ageing, fatigue testing, climatic and protection degree assessments (including high altitude simulation). This centre was developed by great visionaries within North Devon, including Andy Lobato. It has now progressed to be an acknowledged centre at an international level. 

The growing list of hi-tech activities exceeds the lineage available within this article. It would, for example, inspire many to see the world class facilities at Alpharma Ltd Barnstaple and Perrigo Corporation Braunton.  Many of our manufacturing companies such as TDK-Lambda and Beran Instruments are similarly able to compete in a world class environment. 

The trick now is to ensure that we keep up the momentum, we understand and respond to the frightening speed of change and that all our businesses are future proofed.  This will lead to great rewards, particularly for the next generation and ensure that Northern Devon has a bright economic future.

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