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Mike Harrison is ForrestBrown’s structural and marine engineering specialist. With over 35 years’ industry experience across inshore, offshore and dry land, he brings a wealth of expertise to aid the preparation of technically robust R&D tax credit claims. In this article, Mike looks to the future of the UK’s maritime industry and the vital role R&D tax credits have to play in supporting innovative marine projects.

The UK once had a reputation for driving marine innovation with extensive homegrown capabilities in manufacturing and engineering. Over the years that dominance has been slowly eroded. How does Britain start to compete again on a global stage?

It starts with innovative SMEs in the marine and maritime sector making the most of R&D tax credits to fuel their innovation and grow their businesses.

UK marine industry

The maritime and marine industry still significantly contributes to the UK economy. 95% of the UK’s exports and 75% of its imports are transported by sea according to British Ports. But we’re being left in the wake of China, Canada, the Netherlands, and the US.

From materials and manufacturing through to power systems and marine software, the UK is in danger of squandering its potential.

As a nation, we’re going through a difficult time but these adverse conditions present a unique opportunity for SMEs in the marine sector to help the UK return to the maritime vanguard. Homegrown marine innovation is key.

Marine innovation

The UK continues to drive innovation in the marine industry – there’s no doubt about that. Throughout the country, businesses are pushing boundaries and embarking on ambitious projects around emerging marine tech. With all of these projects, it’s vital that the right materials and technology are used – they need to be able to survive the hostile marine environment where corrosion and other factors have a significant impact. This requires even more experimentation and progressive thinking.

Marine technology

Here are just some of the areas where challenges are being met head-on and R&D-heavy projects are shaping the future:

  • propulsion systems
  • marine drones
  • subsea vehicles
  • exploration electronics
  • multibeam sonar
  • remotely operated vehicles (ROVs)
  • renewable marine energy

Homegrown talent is the key to marine industry growth

The innovation is there, but the problem is that the UK tends to outsource ideas abroad for production and manufacturing. There is also a reliance on imported technology that doesn’t make the most of our domestic capabilities. For these reasons, we’re suffering from a knowledge and skills gap that needs to be plugged quickly.

A lack of a clear industrial strategy for growth in the UK means that companies operating in naval, commercial, leisure and offshore renewable energy sectors have to take the initiative and rise to the challenge.  That means building and retaining skills at home and keeping production in the UK.

It becomes all the more important to support homegrown marine businesses when the cheapest option can actually be more expensive when performance and lifetime costs are factored in. Decisions based on price alone can also have serious and wide-ranging implications around areas such as environmental standards, safety and security.

Undoubtedly there is excessive reliance on outsourcing abroad and now is the time for companies, no matter how niche or large they might be, to find ways of doing things better and more cost efficiently on home ground so that they have better control when embracing opportunities right before their eyes.

For this to happen, R&D holds the key.

R&D tax credits for marine engineers

There are high levels of R&D in the maritime sector in particular marine engineering.  The sector is immensely technical; it relies on innovation and complex problem solving which many may not recognise as genuine R&D.

However, having worked in the sector for over 35 years, I’ve witnessed millions of pounds of R&D tax credits going to waste – either where they have not been claimed or even been considered as a funding option.  It hasn’t even been on the business agenda for some, and this is certainly a missed opportunity for many UK businesses.

R&D tax credits were first introduced 20 years ago as a government incentive to reward innovation and fuel growth, and the criteria is purposefully broad. Whether creating new or changing existing products, processes or services, R&D tax credits are a valuable source of cash for businesses to invest in accelerating their marine R&D, hiring new staff and ultimately growing.

Qualifying R&D in marine engineering – some examples:

  • Creating a new marine mechanical product or appreciably improved maintenance service
  • Developing a new propulsion system or designing hydrodynamics to make a boat faster
  • Building cleaner engines or designing marine fuel cells
  • Creating and implementing an improved method for processing bilge water aboard cruise liners
  • Adapting tethered drone technology for marine deployments e.g. a security detection
  • Retrofitting and/or adapting for higher efficiency heating systems for passenger vessels
  • Developing a new touchscreen control interface for a boat’s central navigation system
  • Programming a marine software interface or using big data to improve marine operations
  • Retaining artisan boatbuilding aesthetics/appeal by developing state of the art productions processes for more economic/repeatable production
  • Creating new bathymetry/hydrography products and devices for better seabed surveys
  • Increasing the performance, range and mission capabilities of unmanned vessel (USVs)
  • Deploying new construction techniques, corrosion protection and damage resilience for marine structures.

Marine SMEs have the power to unlock R&D

SMEs need to focus on unlocking R&D to help secure their own growth and drive the industry forward. ForrestBrown are here to help you. Brexit, trade wars/deals and most recently the challenges presented by the Covid-19 global pandemic actually represent an opportunity for the UK to once again become an oceangoing giant in its own right.

For example, if tendering for a project where a client is seeking a specific solution, and you’re scratching your head about how to overcome it or need to find a new way to deliver it, then it’s highly likely that R&D will be involved. This could apply to a whole raft of sectors in the industry from ship to shore, through to marine construction, boat and ship building, to tidal energy or wind farms with either a renewables or environmental focus.

There are so many exciting areas of marine innovation where the R&D potential is huge. If marine businesses take a risk by attempting to ‘resolve scientific or technological uncertainties’, then it’s pretty likely they’re carrying out qualifying R&D tax credits.

Marine R&D case studies

At ForrestBrown, we’ve helped several marine businesses receive the credit they deserve and reinvest it into their company. Here are some examples of niche marine R&D that we’ve worked on:

  • A boatbuilder integrating cutting-edge tech into heritage vessels
  • A boatyard creating better valve, pump and propeller repairs
  • A manufacturer of compact high-torque winches.
  • We’ve also helped companies find marine R&D in thermal imaging applications, modular unmanned surface vehicles and even ruggedized chic furniture for superyachts.

Benefits of R&D tax credits for marine businesses

The benefits of R&D tax credits for marine businesses are numerous and hold the key to the future of the industry. Regardless of the sub sector of the marine industry that you work in, ambitious British companies can be transformed by R&D tax incentives. At ForrestBrown, we are determined to make a difference from the bottom up to restore the UK’s reputation as a global maritime heavyweight.

This article was last updated on 18 September 2020.