When Britain’s Green SMEs Go To China, Knowledge Goes Both Ways

max smolaks

When British cleantech companies visit the socialist state, Max Smolaks asks if they go to learn or to teach?

Next week,Britain’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) will send thirteen innovative British tech companies to explore green approaches to manufacturing in China. There’s a lot to be learned already from the approaches they are taking.

‘Tomorrow’s Manufacturing: Mission to China’ is a six-day trip which aims to encourage collaboration on research, development and innovation between the two nations. It follows similar missions to India and the US earlier this year.

The group doesn’t include a lot of specifically IT firms, but renewable energy and new manufacturing methods are well represented. TechWeekEurope spoke to two of the companies taking part – Arcola Energy and Croft Filters – to find out what they are looking to achieve in these six days. The first develops hydrogen fuel cells, the second manufactures industrial filters using 3D printing, and the reasons they are going to China couldn’t be more different.

Equivalent exchange

Shanghai skylineThe mission is organised by the TSB, in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China. Participating companies were carefully selected based on their green credentials – innovation, efficiency, lack of environmental impact and the sustainability of the technology they sell.

Thirteen businesses will be joined by representatives of the universities of Brunel, Cranfield and Liverpool, and two research organisations. The delegation will visit three Chinese regions renowned for their enterprise and heavy manufacturing – Changsha, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

“The UK and China have a close working relationship and this is a fantastic business opportunity for some of the most innovative companies in the UK. It will give them the chance to reach out to a new market and collaborate with business in one of the world’s fastest growing economies,” said universities and science minister David Willetts.

Fuel in a stick

But what exactly are the participants trying to find in China? Arcola Energy is a developer of fuel-cell technologies for everything from experimental toys to electric cars that aspires to make clean energy more accessible for consumers and businesses.

Hydrogen Developer KitIt imports almost all of its components from China, including parts for its Hydrogen Developer Kit, which allows enthusiasts to build their own fuel cell systems, managed by either Arduino microcontroller or a Raspberry Pi.

According to Ben Todd, managing director at Arcola, Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been waiting to be commercialised for the last 100 years, but it lacks experts and evangelists. “At the moment, you’ve got lots of [fuel cell] companies swallowing huge amounts of venture capital – about three or four billion so far – and very few of them are making any profit,” told us Todd.

And that’s exactly what Arcola Energy provides – expertise. It buys ingredients for its products in China, but adds the value in the UK.

“I want to understand the Chinese industry,” explained Todd. “You’ve got this perception that it’s the place where you make billions of t-shirts, but it’s a potential market too. China is doing more science education than pretty much anybody else. So I would quite like to sell them some stuff. I want to meet my equivalents, my peers.

“Universities buy a lot of fuel cells, give them to PhD students, and they break them. We say, OK, if you want to buy fuel cells, buy them from us, pay us an ‘X’ amount of money and we will come, teach you how to use them. And then we’ll help you integrate them. This business model works in the UK and Europe, and now we want to take it to China.”

Essentially, Arcola is embracing a very British business model of exporting knowledge. “We don’t make stuff anymore, we do services,” says the fuel cell expert.

Additive manufacturing

It’s a very different story for Croft Filters – a filter manufacturer that discovered it could make better products using advanced 3D printing techniques… although the company’s director Neil Burns prefers the term “additive metal manufacturing”.

EOSINT M 280 Metal Printer“3D printing in metal has been around for quite a while, 15-20 years, but it’s not really been commercialised – it’s used in medical, aerospace industries, Formula-1 and has a few other minor applications. We identified the fact that we can make a filter with additive manufacturing that we couldn’t machine or laser-cut,” Burns told us.

Croft Filters has used the new machine since April and is still learning the process, but the first impressions have been overwhelmingly positive. Burns says his company is now facing a challenge: the manufacturing industry is not moving fast enough in the UK, and there’s not enough local expertise in printing metal.

“China could be more advanced than Europe on additive manufacturing. We want to see what’s out there, we want to see if they have identified markets that we haven’t. There’s loads of R&D do be done, and many products which could use this disruptive technology.” In a nutshell, Croft Filters is going to China to learn and collaborate: to  import knowledge, rather than export it.

These two examples perfectly illustrate the point of the upcoming mission: bartering ideas, forging mutually beneficial relationships. In the past, the UK established itself as country of innovators, while China had provided the world with physical goods. Today, these dynamics are changing, and even the smallest businesses will have to adapt to survive.

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