We recently interviewed Mat Hunter, Co-CEO at Plus X to learn why workshops and specialist facilities are a vital part of our innovation hubs.
“At its core, innovation takes a lot of repetition. In the early stages, you’ve got to be able to continually make, launch, try things out and learn.
“While at university, individuals have plenty of access to shared workshops and makerspaces, but once they’ve graduated, these facilities and spaces suddenly become inaccessible and wildly expensive.
“For us, building shared workshops was a pretty straightforward and clear route to help support small businesses and allow them opportunities to grow.
“Making is about turning your ideas into reality, turning your theories into practice. We’re trying to facilitate making and will add value wherever we think we can in the future. To help small businesses grow they need to be able to try physical stuff out. Access to testing is a key component of innovation – what happens when you take a theory and put it into practice? The general answer is it doesn’t quite work out as you expected.
“Practice is so often different from our theories, our intuitions, our hopes, our expectations, and then when we finally get to the stage of trying something out it doesn’t quite work. But, that sense of trying, experiencing errors, learning from these, and making improvements is innovation.”
Why Innovation is Needed in the UK
“At Plus X, we’re constantly on the lookout for infrastructure that helps people iterate their making faster. In our workshops, we enable businesses to make at speed. By iterating, you’re making faster, and solving your problems rapidly. You can move past the errors and get to success quicker. Those days or weeks that you saved compared with sending an idea across the globe to China for development, that’s the precious time that allows you to keep your speed of iteration higher.
“If we were to name just two of the biggest global challenges, environmental and healthcare, the difficulties that come with these spheres are matters of physical space. Software algorithms will help, and AI will make us more efficient in how we use energy, but at the same time, making the solar panels or making the biodegradable plastics, is a matter of rearranging atoms, not rearranging bits. Businesses that make physical things still matter.
“This is a mindset that has been around for at least 10 to 15 years; the resurgence of businesses, the making of physical things and the realisation that those physical things need to be made with extreme care, otherwise they will be damaging to the planet. They need to be circular, and they need to be low carbon.
“All of the recent challenges around supply chains help us to understand that countries need supply chain security. The US has been doing it for a while, but what is now accelerating is the idea of onshoring things. After a few decades of offshoring, they’re working on how to make more manufacturing happen in the US.
“Currently in the UK when you get to a particular stage, you might send them to China, although we’re trying to do more to limit this in this country. Although as a country we have deindustrialised to some extent, the UK is still the 9th biggest manufacturing nation in the world, so the opportunity for us to reinvigorate manufacturing and innovation in this country is there.
“We’re in outreach mode as there is currently a relative scarcity of people in the UK with these sorts of maker skills. The machinery and prototyping workshops we have at Plus X Brighton and Central Research Laboratory are more expensive than what individuals or individual businesses would perhaps buy by themselves, so we provide a sweet spot of what some people refer to as prosumerism, where you both consume and produce. It gives makers an open and more economical platform in which to test, rather than having to wait weeks for prototypes to make their way back from the other side of the world. We take the scariness out of using these machines with our readily available team of expert technicians and health and safety masters on hand to help.
“And we might yet find that there are very different senses of making. Plus X started in West London where there is a focus on industrial design engineering. Brighton echoes this focus, particularly with environmental sustainability, which is such a universal challenge, but as we grow and open new innovation hubs across the UK, we will always seek to branch out into other forms of making.
“Our prototype and workshop facilities, podcast studio, and VR suites all have a relationship with each other; I call it digital, physical and biological making. Businesses today need more than just desk space. Our specialist facilities and programmes are what makes Plus X different from other workspaces, and earn us the title of ‘innovation hub’. At Plus X, we’re working to help make innovation more accessible and, with what we offer, it opens up this industry to a whole new generation of makers.”
We also run a number of innovation programmes for product makers that provide supported access to our workshops: