Andrea Thompson on steering the £20m Made Smarter North West Pilot

Posted on 18 Apr 2019 by Jonny Williamson

Nick Peters speaks to Andrea Thompson, managing director for Europe & International Programmes at BAE Systems, and recently appointed chair of the Made Smarter Commission's North West Pilot.

The launch of the Made Smarter North West Pilot last year is now bearing fruit. The project – designed to encourage, inform and assist smaller manufacturers into the process of adopting digital manufacturing technologies – has now appointed a chair, whose job it will be to monitor progress of this vital initiative.

Vital, because on its success hangs the fate of the entire manufacturing element of the government’s Industrial Strategy.

Industrial strategies in the past have not really engaged very well with industry, because they tended to have been managed by politicians and civil servants. Here we have very much a business-led initiative. Is that perhaps why this stands a very good chance of success?

Andrea Thompson, managing director for Europe & International Programmes at BAE Systems, and recently appointed chair of the Made Smarter North West PilotAndrea Thompson: I think you’re exactly right. This Pilot programme is about speaking a very common business language; it’s targeted at SMEs primarily, but it brings together the simplicity of, ‘We’re here to improve businesses, we’re here to provide some expert advice, some help around skills,’ and people can relate to that. It’s a simple way to say, ‘We’re here to make your business better.’

I will challenge you on that. The Manufacturer’s Annual Manufacturing Report suggests a wide understanding of the benefits of digital manufacturing technologies, but a marked reluctance to actually invest in them.

We sensed a real gulf of understanding about how to go about it. It’s almost like we’ve got to start again and get away from the jargon that’s being spoken.

I absolutely agree – we’ve already recognised that we need to fine-tune the message even more, based on initial feedback we’ve gotten from the SMEs that we’ve already engaged with.

Part of that feedback is, ‘Let’s put that into simpler language,’ and that will be part of the next round of messaging that comes out of the Pilot – talking about quite simple things that people can relate to, things like laser machines, 3D printing.

I’m wondering how somebody like you, who has spent most of your career in pretty rarefied circles – Leyland, Rolls-Royce plc, now BAE Systems – can possibly relate to the daily challenges that an SME faces just trying to make their way in a very uncertain world?

I put it down to pretty simple thoughts. First, we all run businesses; so, whether you’re at the very large end or an SME, this is about, ‘Can we do things efficiently? Can we do it effectively, and can the business grow and invest in itself?’ Those are relatable, common principles.

I’ve worked in different levels of business, but we all have supply chains that we work with, and when you get down into the SME level, these individual businesses are critical to the overall functioning of all our supply chains. So if I, and BAE in this case, can bring some help and support and knowledge into those supply chains, that helps not only them, but it helps my business as well, because I’ve got a functioning supply chain that performs to what I need, delivers on time, and innovates, and that’s really what this is about.

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An occasional grumble we hear is that the more connected and transparent those supply chains become (because of digital technologies), larger companies tend to rather dominate and dictate, rather than collaborate with people further down the chain.

If your philosophy is you’re going to dominate your supply chain and dictate, then you’ll probably end up not surviving in the long run; and if we go back in time across business, you can find many examples of companies and industries that have done that, and they no longer exist.

I very much subscribe to the philosophy of, ‘Let’s have the right conversation with our suppliers, we’ve both got to be successful in this,’ and collaboration is something that in particular BAE is very proud of, not only with our customers, but with our suppliers. And so I think imparting some of that philosophy, some of those tools and learning that we do, into the Pilot and within the SME supply chain, I think can only be a good thing.

You spent several years in the United States, indeed your father ran an SME-sized engineering business there. Is there any lesson that you have drawn from that to inform your own career, and is there any palpable difference between the way things are done in the US and here?

One of the lessons I’ve learned, whether it’s the US or UK, is there are no guarantees in business, there’s no guarantee that your business will survive. I learned that in the automotive business growing up in the US, with the likes of the ‘Big Three’ getting overtaken by companies that were flexible, agile, and innovative, by people that embraced not only technology, but also went about it with a different culture, and a mindset that you have to continually drive your business.

The US companies I’ve worked for absolutely use that language on a day-to-day basis. “How do we improve? How do we drive down cost? How do we innovate?” I see that in the UK, too, but both countries have room to grow because the competition outside the US and UK is growing just as fast, or maybe faster.

Returning to the Pilot, what this is all about is getting people to recognise you can’t stand still. And it’s got to be about bringing your customer the value, and the affordability that they’re looking for.

CROP - The f-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is the world's largest defence programme - image courtesy of BAE Systems.

BAE Systems is co-operating with the US on the F-35 Lightning. The project obviously is fantastic from the point of view of BAE Systems, where you’re building the tailplanes, but I’m wondering if you feel the global headwinds that we’re getting, particularly from politicians as globalisation seems to be diluting. Is this going to make your life more difficult going forward?

 I don’t think so. I think it’s just the way the world is today. If you want to compete on a global scale, in big complex programmes, or in smaller businesses, you have to collaborate.

If you can set up your business to enable collaboration, where you’re looking to learn, you’re looking to partner, then the F-35 is a great example that you’ve referenced. We brought some significant value into that programme, via technology and skills, and a great partnership was developed from that. I think that’s just the way the future is. If you’re a big company or an SME, you’re going to have to do it with someone, as opposed to going it alone.

What about your ambitions for the Pilot – is there any way that you’ll be able to measure to your own satisfaction that it’s been a success?

We are literally at the early stages of getting up and running, so we are just putting together what we want our success targets to look like, and we have started those discussions, but a lot of it this year will be about engagement with the SMEs. How many have we been able to reach out to? How many projects have we got in development? What are the success rates of those projects?

So, those are being formulated; but in the early stages of this year, it is about the ability to count, connect, and get responses back from the SMEs, and also how many projects can we deliver this year? Because we do have them already in the pipeline. So I would say in the next month or two, we’ll be able to have more definition around that.

Can SME business owners and executives around the North West expect to see a lot more of Andrea Thompson in 2019?

 I think they can expect to hear a lot more from the Pilot group, not necessarily from ‘Andrea’. I would prefer more to support the team, they’re the ones actually doing the work, but the momentum is definitely picking up.

You’ll see more engagements from the team, out and about around the North West; you’ll see more on the website; you’ll see more in terms of messaging and communications overall; and equally, I would hope you’ll see more success stories coming through that as well.

The Made Smarter North West Pilot – do you qualify to take part?

The Pilot is designed to support manufacturers, engineers, makers and creators with facilities or operations in Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region to grow through adoption of new technologies.

What can Made Smarter offer?

  • Fully-funded specialist advice to assess your current operations and develop your digitalisation strategy
  • 50% grant funding to implement new technology, software and hardware into your manufacturing
  • Access to a subsidised Leadership Development programme, designed specifically to support the programme
  • Access to student placements to help you understand how to implement the technology.

Found out more, and register, here.

Richard Hagan, managing director of Rochdale-based Crystal Doors, is championing the Made Smarter North West Pilot having already adopted robotics and other 4.0 technologies in his own manufacturing business.

In the below video, Richard explains to Nick Peters how it worked for his company: