Defiant manufacturing show snubs recession

Posted on 13 Feb 2009 by The Manufacturer

Over 500 exhibitors and strong attendance figures defied the moribund economy this week at the biggest manufacturing and electronics exhibition in the South.

Southern Manufacturing & Electronics Exhibition in Farnborough, organized by ETES in association with the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) South East, hummed with busy stands, demonstrations and seminars on February 11 and 12. The 3,500 m2 venue, adjacent to the Farnborough Aerospace Village, was bigger than the 2008 venue and the stands were sold out by Christmas, according to the show’s PR manager Adrian Jones.

“The show has been a big success,” says Jones. “At the height of the financial sector problems last year we were concerned the venue might not be filled. But then by Christmas it was practically sold out. And companies here are doing real business – it’s a very different story to that you read about in the mainstream press.” Additional space had to be provided for nearly 40 late applicants.

Most of the exhibitors came from the south of England, but a big proportion came from further afield, including the Midlands, Derbyshire, Notts, Yorks, Lancs, Scotland, several from Wales and Germany, with one company – a lightning forecasting business – from France. The show hosted 24 separate seminars, 12 each on engineering and electronics subjects, many of which were fully attended.

Several seminars, such as those on lean tools and techniques and designing demand, were run by show co-sponsors MAS South East. “This year we delivered ten seminars on different topics and were able to meet many of the manufacturers who came to the event looking for practical support, business opportunities and new ideas,” says Stuart Wood, a MAS South East specialist. “Despite the downturn, manufacturers in the region are still exploring new technologies and innovative ideas which will make sure they remain resourceful and competitive, and we’re confident that the industry has a vibrant future.”

In contrast to the general economic gloom, the mood at the exhibition was upbeat and industrious. “This show attracts very few tyre-kickers,” says Jones. “Clearly people here are buying and selling – they wouldn’t spend money attending if they weren’t confident of doing business.”

Several manufacturing companies that TM spoke to supported this view. DJJ Precision Engineering, a CNC engineering firm from Pontypool, was skeptical about the show until very recently, having made a £750,000 investment in a new Citizen cutting machine in October, part of a £1m total investment in the last 18 months. “We came at the last minute, but we’re delighted we came,” says managing director Shirley Jones. “We’re a small firm and it cost a lot of money but I didn’t expect this. We had 40 enquiries on the first day and nearly as many today.”

The reaction is typical of the positive energy, and business reality, on show at Farnborough that is bucking the manufacturing feel-bad factor saturating the national media. Despite a small workforce of 12, since investing in more advanced machinery DJJ has reduced production time by four to five times, exemplified by its showcase product that is being produced at the rate of one every 14 secs for 29p. “Before the investment we were losing business to China; now we’re getting some of that back and there is interest returning from European customers and more UK-based enquiries,” Jones adds.

Don’t believe the hype

Jim Rosseter, managing director at ALR Printed Circuits, a broker/supplier for printed circuit boards worldwide, was similarly chipper. Despite the gloom of a world recession, ALR reports very good business on the first day, where its main new product launch, the panel sharing prototype, has proved very popular. Rosseter says matter-of-factly: “Of course everyone is finding it harder, but we just have to try harder.” ALR’s client base is split 40:60 UK and rest of the world, but business continues to feed in from both sides. While Asia provides the high volume low technology, and also very high tech PCBs, the UK supplies mainly medium-volume production on fast turnaround, and low volume on very fast turnaround. “The UK suppliers are still busy, partly because there’s loyalty in that market and also they supply to sensitive markets such as defense,” says Rosseter. And what about the negative national news?

“Don’t listen to it and concentrate on what you’re doing!” he adds.

Another company with a positive outlook was Haas Automation, a big US CNC machine tool maker and distributor. It produces 85 different machine models from manual operation to more advanced 5-axis machines, supplying sectors from education to electronics, aerospace and automotive that shape metals, wood and plastics. Regional sales manager John Crawford acknowledges a fall in monthly orders due to the recession, but says that specific sectors are very buoyant. “With the green movement we have orders for product to make valve bodies for wind turbines, and colleges and universities is also a busy, and steady, sector.” The credit crunch has affected its clients’ ability to purchase machines, but Haas has a finance arm that has helped customers while bank credit has dwindled. “We are lucky as we have a vast range of products, and public sector applications, while some other companies are more exposed,” says Crawford. “You have to look further and concentrate on the sectors where there is business.”

Green forces

Environmental corporate action and lean operations have helped manufacturers win contracts. HepcoMotion is a well-known manufacturer of linear motion systems. Now in its 40th year, the company exports 60% overseas, much of it to Germany, and has won the Queen’s Award for exports. John Palmer, UK sales manager, identifies food, pharmaceuticals and packaging as growth areas. “Driven by waste and cost reduction, packaging companies are redesigning their machines to be more efficient and we are benefiting from that,” he says, highlighting the milk industry and the production of aircraft wings at Airbus as two examples where more efficient automation design has driven business. Palmer is unimpressed with the public perception of the state of UK manufacturing. He says very few people, least of all the government and the media, understand how the manufacturing industry works. “As design engineers, we have some of the most innovative people in Europe – and I’ve worked with German engineers!” he says. “This is my fourth recession, and every time we talk ourselves into a worse position – it’s a British disease. Let’s focus on the positives; that we offer specialised, higher value products in which we have comparative advantage.”

In one of the seminar theatres, Rob Holdway of environmental consultancy Giraffe Innovation, and star of Channel 4’s ‘Dumped’ social experiment, explained some of the technicalities of calculating carbon footprints, packaging economies and product labeling. The room fills up and Holdway is plying the audience with a steady stream of facts and figures, from the depressing to the entertaining. Giraffe calculated that US retail giant Wal-Mart could save $3.4bn from a 5% saving reduction in packaging, then highlights the irony of the case where one management consultant’s carbon reduction literature was printed on laminated card – making it commercially unviable to recycle. Through the seminar, the residual theme is less reducing carbon emissions, more saving businesses money. Other seminars were equally strong and relevant to manufacturers: rapid manufacturing in the future, Six Sigma approaches for large and small companies, CE marking, 21st century supply chain and more.

As the show began to unwind, the event’s public relations man Adrian Jones emphasises the number of companies that were here last year which have returned this year, as well as the new visitors like DJJ Precision: mostly highly lean companies, doing business and well placed to take the recession. “Contrary to a widely held view, UK manufacturing is very much alive and kicking,” Jones says. “It will help to save the UK economy.”