The Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC) joined the panel for Heap & Partners, “Manufacturing Britain’s Recovery” roundtable on Wednesday 7th October.
The roundtable was comprised of Mark Pawsey MP, David Wafer (IoD), Paula Basnett (Wirral Chamber), chaired by Heap & Partners MD David Millar.
The panel discussed the challenges facing manufacturing and how the sector can lead the UK’s economic recovery.
The VEC’s main takeaways from the discussion where:
Economic recovery: to achieve growth requires demand for products, investment by business, productive capacity and government support, all with an eye on export. COVID-19 has proven the manufacturing sectors resilience and value to the economy. 90% of manufacturers have continued to trade through lockdown, providing essential goods and services.
The sector answered the ventilator challenge and many businesses have pivoted to produce PPE and products for the pharma industry. Digital technologies underpin many of these successes. Zoom, Teams, SharePoint and home broadband kept support services functioning. Digital design, virtual prototyping and 3D printing allowed for rapid product development of new ventilators designs and PPE. Data and simulation validate change over plans and capacity forecast.
The value of good digital strategy, and the potential for digital technologies to be the vanguard of business resilience, the catalyst for investment and the driving force of growth has been proven. So what are the next steps for UK manufacturing?
Productivity: The panel noted the historical productivity challenges the UK has faced and the success in turning around manufacturing productivity. The UK achieved a 50% increase in productivity between 97 and 2007, but since the global financial crash that has slowed.
Automation was highlighted as a critical area of opportunity for productivity growth and an anchor for wider industrial digitisation.
With research showing, 57% of companies employ automation to augment the workforce leading to greater productivity, competitiveness and growth. The growth and competitiveness automation brings is expected to create 3.5million new jobs in the UK and boost the economy by 1.4%.
Automation grows businesses, from shop floor robotics to integrated back-office system, automation speeds up processes and allows people to focus on higher-value work. Automation is also the key to the rapid changeover and mass customisation needed for more agile nearshored supply chains, creating and capturing more value in the UK while reducing the risk and complexity of the bullwhip and environmental impact of excess international freight.
Ambition: The panel observed that COVID and Brexit are an opportunity to adopt a more ambitions and confident approach in the sector. Having weathered the storm, many manufacturers are embracing innovation and the low cost of borrowing to diversify and develop new strategies for future growth with digital being a core enabler and digital strategy being a thread that runs across the business.
The panel discussed the need for robust sales strategies to drive exports and growth as well as the confidence to diversify existing businesses and build nearshored supply chains. The part digital strategy plays in facilitating entry into new territories cannot be underestimated. 35% of manufacturers provide services as well as products to their international clients. Digital tools offer a means to overcome barriers of distance, language and aftersales support.
Innovation: The need for strong innovation culture and a willingness to explore and embrace change was high on the agenda. The importance of capitalising on support from chambers of commerce and independent, expert technical support from research organisations like the VEC was seen as a key tool to de-risk innovation and achieve success quickly.
A businesses opportunities and challenges necessitate innovation, and digital strategy should form a central thread across for any modern manufacturing businesses. With the top-level vision established, a roadmap can be put in place to evaluate the emerging technologies, access the pre-cursors and barrier to adoption and proof innovation before rollout.
Education: An area of unanimous agreement was the importance of championing the value and potential of the manufacturing sector to the next generation. Putting manufacturing centre stage in the school curriculum would of great benefit to the nation. Likewise advocating for greater alignment of university R&D with the UK’s own manufacturing base would be essential to creating and capturing value for Britain in the coming years.
As the world faces global challenges from energy security, drug development and the green economy, today’s manufacturing businesses have the potential to make the solutions. In the future, that potential will be fulfilled with today’s young people at the wheel of our manufacturing SMEs. The issues of growth, productivity, digital innovation ambition and education are interlinked and will be the not so secret formula to the future prosperity of the UK.