A perfect 10 for the Top 100 2023

Posted on 5 Jun 2023 by Joe Bush

This year sees The Manufacturer celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Top 100; the awards programme which celebrates the inspiring individuals who are shaping the manufacturing sector in the UK.

F rom Young Pioneers and Unsung Heroes to Inspiring Leaders and Innovators, the Top 100 is a showcase of the very best talent the sector has to offer, as judged by an esteemed panel featuring leaders of industry, academic institutions and manufacturing associations.

In this article, The Manufacturer Editor, Joe Bush, takes a trip down memory lane for a catch up with three of the original 20 Exemplars from the very first Top 100 intake in 2014: Jan Ward CBE, Founder of Corrotherm, a supplier of seamless pipes, tubes, fittings and flanges; Richard Lloyd, General Manager of wines and spirits company, Accolade Wines; and Adrian Maxwell, Managing Director of cappuccino and espresso coffee machine manufacturer, Fracino.

What was it like to be named as an Exemplar in the first ever Top 100?

JW: It was a lovely surprise because I wasn’t expecting it. There’s a sense of achievement because you’ve been recognised for the work you do, but being named in the Top 100 is also a really good way to link up with other people.

You’ve got something in common with others named in the same cohort. You get talking and it actually leads to business opportunities and access to information that you can use to improve your business. It was also great to see manufacturing acknowledged and the profile of the sector being raised in the public domain.

RL: To be in the first year to be selected in the Top 100 was amazing, but to then be named in the Exemplar group was incredibly flattering; it’s something I’ve always cherished. I’ve attended most years since and seen the calibre of people that have been added. It was just magical to be there from the start. It’s always good to have some external recognition as a verification of your standing. Being an Exemplar in the Top 100 also gives you an air of credence when you’re in a group of people and part of dynamic business discussions.

AM: It is very prestigious to be in the Top 100; it has helped us win other awards and market the company. Before being nominated we were fairly unknown, now we’re being consulted around policy, which is absolutely incredible – government are actually looking to us. Being recognised by The Manufacturer was a catalyst for that and it really helped us promote the business and push it forward.

In addition, it’s really helped us from the perspective of being in a global market. Recognitions like this give us extra kudos and credibility with potential customers. We didn’t export a single product until 2009; now our export market represents around 35-40% of our turnover.

JW: The Top 100 programme is more important to the sector now than ever before. It’s absolutely vital as we can see all too clearly how unstable the UK economy can become if it’s totally reliant on services, which it has been. The Top 100 is key to promoting the industry and encouraging youngsters to get involved; to show that working in manufacturing can be successful and enjoyable.

What impact has The Top 100 had on your career?

RL: There have been some big milestones that have come about from our relationship with The Manufacturer. We always attend their events as a group because it’s really important to hear different views, ideas and see different technology; we can discuss, meet people and discover what works for us.

We’ve introduced 3D printing of our spare parts, AI and machine learning, totally off the back of being at The Manufacturer events and meeting other suppliers and like-minded businesses. Our business has evolved with technology and for me, The Manufacturer and The Manufacturer Top 100 has provided the platform to help us grow.

JW: Being in the Top 100, using the network and attending events hosted by The Manufacturer has opened up a number of opportunities for me to meet and talk to other people and companies. That collaboration is really useful.

As manufacturers, we’re naturally curious, but that is enhanced by being part of the Top 100 as there’s nothing like the face-to-face sparking of ideas across platforms and people. The other huge bonus of being a Top 100 Exemplar is that it has enabled me to see other factories, which is my favourite thing to do.

The programme brings you together with people that you wouldn’t necessarily have met under normal circumstances. It enables you to get involved and understand more about what others are doing in areas beyond your sector, but which can still influence what you do.

I also like the fact that the Top 100 puts forward people that wouldn’t necessarily be acknowledged – the Young Pioneer and Unsung Hero categories for example; the people that work in the background to keep production rolling, doing the jobs that are not necessarily high profile. It’s not all about the chief executives and members of the board.

When you get the title of being in the Top 100, it puts you on the same level as everyone else in that year’s intake. People from a large automotive OEM, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be speaking to a small manufacturer from the Midlands. But when you’re in the Top 100, you all come together.

AM: I still like to be very hands-on, although I don’t have as much time to do so as I once did. I oversee and run the business, and I have a core team that run each department and report into me. I’ve constantly learned new skills as the business has grown, and I always listen. That’s something my father taught me. You don’t have to agree with what’s being said, but as long as you’re listening, you’re always learning.

RL: I’ve become more of a generalist since being included in the Top 100. I’m lucky now that I have full supply chain end-to-end responsibility. The huge advantage of that is having the skill set to be able to bring a group of different functions together and make sure they are optimised as a whole.

When looking after just one function, you’re very focused on optimising that one area, and rightly so. But my career has now become one of building a leadership team and making sure we provide that end-to-end supply chain offering for our customers.

How has the landscape of manufacturing changed in the last decade?

JW: Automation and digitalisation have been huge. However, in truth I’m disappointed it hasn’t come further. But I am aware of the barriers that exist for small businesses and how hard it is to find the necessary skills to enable the rollout of such technology.

That demographic of people and the infrastructure that will enable this to happen, is not going to grow quickly, and perhaps the two years of the pandemic and the aftermath has caused further delays. Small businesses know that it’s something they should be doing but they can sometimes get overwhelmed. So again, talking to other Top 100 members helps to gauge some perspective and see what can be done. And there are offers of help as well.

The bigger companies will try to assist smaller businesses or introduce them to people that can. There’s certainly a desire for digital transformation by most small manufacturers, and they are aware of the fact, particularly with labour shortages, that automation and digital is the way to go.

There’s also a very robust discussion being had around what can be achieved with net zero. There are lots of things that people can do, but they all cost money. So sharing information about how this can be done cheaper and more incrementally is key.

It’s a case of trying to work out what’s affordable for you so you can take those small steps, because it’s not possible for everyone to leap into it and convert everything straightaway, especially if you have inherited assets that are quite old. However, the Top 100 gives you the opportunity to sit down and talk with people who are perhaps further along the journey and offer ideas of what you can be doing yourself.

RL: Sustainability has grown massively. That’s why we’re now a carbon net neutral facility; we have the country’s largest wind turbine, we 3D print machine parts using one of our waste streams and we move all our vehicles around the site on hydrated vegetable oil (HVO).

We have had to evolve our offering and the way we work. The cost pressures that have grown recently have meant that productivity improvements are more important than ever. Our ability to embrace technology and take cost out where we can has been critical, but the core purpose of delivering value for our customers has ultimately, remained unchanged.

We embraced sustainability and found it has had an economic benefit. Our 2.5MW wind turbine, which was put up in 2019, provides 50% of our electricity for the site. And when you compare the cost of that electricity against the grid, it’s about a quarter of the price.

There’s been a number of different pressures but, if you keep embracing new technology and partner with businesses that help you optimise and drive forward, you can stay ahead of the game. The initiatives we’ve rolled out mean we are more resilient to some of the external factors impacting the sector.

AM: We’ve been working on environmental issues for quite a long time. We installed solar panels around eight years ago, and at the time were able to take advantage of the buy-in-tariffs. That means we can use all the power we generate and get paid for it, which is absolutely wonderful.

That was a 25 year contract so it is still ongoing. The solar panels are paid for following our initial outlay of around £40,000. That demonstrated foresight on our part and you can’t underestimate the importance of reinvestment; it really is a no brainer – particularly at the moment with the current energy crisis – so the measures we implemented a few years ago have been an absolute godsend. We also recycle all our metal and our machines themselves are 96% recyclable. We recycle all our own cardboard and reuse all our own waste. We recycle everything we possibly can, even down to our own oil.

A key purpose of the Top 100 is to raise awareness of the sector and help reduce the skills gap. How has this particular problem shifted since 2014?

AM: We see evidence of the huge skills shortage across many facets of the industry. If we need something done that’s physical or practical, we’re finding that the vast majority of people available are from an older age group.

We do have young people but we find that we really have to pull them along as often, they’re not that keen on the work. I blame the education system to a certain extent as young people are pushed into and coached for exams, which doesn’t provide them with the practical skills needed for a career in manufacturing – they can’t think around a problem and often don’t know how to communicate.

Of course, we find some young people who aren’t very good at school and struggle with academia, but they’ve got great practical skills. They’re the ones we try and get hold of quickly because they are unusual. The education system needs to recognise that we’re not going to be able to fill the skills gap unless we have those practical courses.

CNC machinists are so hard to find. We have someone who’s semi-retired that’s running our machines; we are struggling and are just managing with what we’ve got. Something needs to change. And I think it probably needs to start at school, because education tends to portray ‘engineer’ as a dirty word.

It’s a completely different sector now. You can be working with some pretty high-tech pieces of equipment and machinery, producing some amazing finished products. However, there’s still not the right links between school and industry to bring the two together.

JW: Unfortunately, I don’t think that the skills gap has changed much in terms of the volume of people coming into the sector. We haven’t had the big influx into the industry that would have been desirable. And we’ve also had the retirement issue that we knew was coming and is still ongoing.

COVID certainly made that worse – an estimated half a million early retirees left the labour force due to the pandemic and I suspect quite a high number of those came from manufacturing. The sector is performing a lot better than it was a decade ago and I don’t think the gender gap is as big a problem as it once was. However, the main issue is still around attraction and the pull of other sectors has made it harder to recruit young people.

I don’t think the industry has done a bad job of putting itself out there, but the skills piece is still not where it needs to be and we’re not getting the feed of people with the right level of skills coming into the sector, particularly in mathematics and physics. So companies are having to take pretty raw recruits and train them themselves.

All of that said, I do think that going digital and the adoption of automation has helped to recruit more young people by quashing that image of the sector being all about oily rags and overalls, and showing youngsters that are training now and thinking about degrees, the truth about the industry.

We need the universities to step up and show what is possible in manufacturing. Unfortunately, teachers and parents are often way behind the times when it comes to knowing what manufacturing is about. Parents generally don’t understand what real, modern manufacturing means in terms of a career and it’s up to the institutions to get that message across.

However, I’m afraid that many universities are behind the curve. Many of the engineering departments are not well funded, don’t have the necessary equipment, and are therefore, not up to speed with what’s going on. The universities are also failing to recruit the right sort of people. Former manufacturers need to be doing the teaching; giving it to professors that have only ever been in academia is not good for manufacturing.

In the past, I’ve found resistance to modern methods when I’ve visited universities (3D printing for example). If it’s a technology that’s not understood, then it’s not going to be wanted in the university department. There are notable exceptions of course – places like Brunel, Manchester and some of the Scottish universities especially. But I think in general, there’s a very big gap between what the lecturers know and want to do, and what’s actually needed by industry.

The Manufacturer Top 100 Awards ceremony will take place on 7 June as part of Manufacturing & Engineering Week. Click here to register.