Essex spotlight: An upwardly mobile advanced manufacturing cluster

Posted on 28 Jul 2020 by The Manufacturer

There’s more to Essex than fake tans and market traders. But the cheap digs may reflect something of the county’s aspirational, enterprising qualities - qualities that have helped shape a vibrant manufacturing ecosystem.

Essex is home to the second largest advanced manufacturing cluster in the UK, with almost 4,000 companies and more than 40,000 people employed in the sector.

Taken as a whole, the county of grafters has an economy the size of Croatia – and some might say, the beaches to match.

But what is Essex? The county straddles several identities: Greater London, Home County, occasionally East Anglian, and for ONS classification purposes the rather ghastly ‘East of England’.

There is certainly a world of difference between the rolling countryside around Chelmsford, the London overspill of Thurrock, and the glamour (everything is relative) of Southend-on-Sea.

And yet in every corner of the county, you will find a surprisingly vibrant and growing manufacturing base.

This article first appeared in the June issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe 

Location, Location, Location

It’s a sad reflection of education in the UK that most students will go through their schooling and on into the workplace without ever having been told about the career opportunities in manufacturing.

For manufacturers, this places a real premium on those parts of the country that have an industrial heritage.

Bill Williams, CEO, Centre for Engineering & Manufacturing Excellence (CEME)
Bill Williams, CEO, Centre for Engineering & Manufacturing Excellence (CEME)

“A really important ingredient of the success of manufacturing in Essex is simply that people know what manufacturing is,” says Bill Williams, CEO of the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence, based in East London.

“Most people will know somebody who knows somebody who either used to work in manufacturing or works in manufacturing.”

Essex has been a long-term beneficiary of the shift in manufacturing out of London, with longstanding investments from Ford since the 1930s continuing to this day. The Dagenham engine plant is one of the most productive plants of its kind in the world.

“We find that the Essex location encourages suppliers, contractors and other partners to collocate here,” says Oliver Rowe, Communications Manager, Ford Motor Company.

The original Roman Road still runs from Colchester to London, highlighting a simple fact of geography – Essex has always been neighbour both to London and the world.

Freight ports in Harwich, Corringham and Tilbury are significant international logistics hubs, competing to provide capacity and convenience to the county’s manufacturers.

Last year, DP World London Gateway was recognised as ‘Best Container Terminal in Europe’ in the Asian Freight, Logistics and Supply Chain Awards.

The Thames port is one of the UK’s most integrated logistics hubs – a state-of-the-art deep seaport and rail terminal on the same site as an expansive land bank, located in Corringham, to the south of Basildon.

“We now have demonstrable data points that prove this port is faster, safer and more reliable and considerably more resilient in poor weather. It represents total market advantage,” says Ernst Schulze, CEO of London Gateway.

“Our solution to the challenge of container weighing is globally market leading, and we provide greater visibility to users with continued innovation, with our ‘Where’s My Container?’ app being a prime example.”

These ports are complemented by a road, rail and airport infrastructure that has long been shaped by the needs (and deep pockets) of London. A second Thames Crossing is being planned for East Tilbury, to add capacity to the much-loved Dartford Crossing. This is due to be sent for Ministerial approval next year, and if built would open in 2027-28.

Crossrail, when it does eventually open, hopefully in 2022, will provide further fast capacity from Shenfield through London to Reading, in addition to the two railway networks serving the county, along with a smattering of London Transport services where the city dissolves into suburbia.

The county’s airports, Stansted and Southend, provide direct access to 181 international destinations (just pipped to the post by Heathrow’s 184 destinations). All this investment in connectivity unsurprisingly makes a difference.

lan O’Rourke, Managing Director, Ruark Audio
lan O’Rourke, Managing Director, Ruark Audio

“The proximity to London with two train lines has certainly been very beneficial and helped us grow,” says Alan O’Rourke, the Managing Director of Ruark Audio, a high-end manufacturer of hi-fi products with its design and engineering operations based in Southend.

“It is perfect having the airport on the doorstep and our staff look to fly locally wherever possible.”

Voted the UK’s Best Airport three times by the Airports Operators’ Association, Southend Airport has proven to be a catalyst for local manufacturing.

“Southend has proven to be an excellent location for our base,” agrees Cliff Marshall, Managing Director of Essex Scientific Laboratory Supplies (ESSLAB).

The company is a leading international supplier to a wide range of analytical and research laboratories in the biopharmaceuticals, food, beverage, environmental, clinical, industrial and educational sectors.

“Visitors from European businesses have been able to enjoy the ease of a seven-minute car ride from the airport terminal to ESSLAB’s office and our proximity has therefore been conducive to the company’s growth.”

According to CEME’s Williams, there’s a lot of evidence to show that pilot-scale production facilities, when sited next to R&D plants, results in a much more productive manufacturing environment.

Major industrial business will have strategic product development sites where they have pilot-scale production, so they can iron out manufacturing, engineering and productivity issues at scale before they move to global roll-outs.

“There is a massive opportunity for manufacturing businesses in Essex thanks to their proximity to London,” Williams continues. “The challenge for them is how do they maximise their geographic relationship with London, their position at the centre of a thriving metropolis of activity?

“Where better to develop carbon reduction technologies and to roll-out pilot-scale production, and do the design and test and development, and have access to finance than here, with London as your testbed?”

Come for college, stay for a career

Transport connectivity only matters if you have something to connect to – and the county’s growing population (up 12.8% in 14 years) is served by two universities with 2,400 students currently enrolled in engineering & technology and computer science related degrees each year.

This gives manufacturers access to what they want most: a highly talented, young workforce.

Eiko Ichikawa-White, director, Blackman & White.
Eiko Ichikawa-White, director, Blackman & White

“It has not always been easy to find skills and staff at entry level, but the local academic institutions seem to be upping their game and offering courses in engineering and robotics, providing promising apprenticeship opportunities,” says Eiko Ichikawa-White, Director, of Maldon-based Blackman & White.

The University of Essex places in all major university rankings including the Academic Ranking of World Universities, The Times’ World University Rankings, and the QS World University Rankings.

It was ranked 29th overall in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019, and offers fully funded Knowledge Exchange Placements which allow masters students to work on company projects related to their course.

Anglia Ruskin University, also included in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, offers leading teaching, knowledge, expertise and facilities to support the growth of start-up or multinational companies.

“A high proportion of our technical, sales and management teams are graduates, and the links with the University of Essex and the technology community clustered around mid-Essex give us access to the right people,” says Nigel Clark, Group Chairman and Financial Director, CML Microsystems, a publicly-traded company on the LSE that designs and manufactures semiconductors for the industrial storage and communications markets.

Ruark’s O’Rourke, having been educated locally, endorses this view: “The majority of our employees are local people. We’ve been able to recruit web developers, graphic designers and product developers from across the local area. They are all highly versatile.”

And as if that were not enough, travel half an hour up the M11 and you have the University of Cambridge with the world-class facilities of the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) available for partnerships.

Roy Gandy, Managing Director, Rega Research
Roy Gandy, Managing Director,
Rega Research

“We have quite an active relationship with the Institute for Manufacturing,” says Roy Gandy, Managing Director of Rega Research, a high-end audio equipment manufacturer.

“I think they see us as an example of an ‘extreme’ company, with unusual ideas. So, they send students down here as a case study. We use them to help get ideas across to our staff – it can really help to have a Cambridge professor to get the attention of your staff when you want to communicate something important!”

It is not just the smaller, innovative manufacturers that benefit from the presence of these universities – and it is not just employees that they provide.

“Essex has proved beneficial in terms of recruiting the high calibre of staff Ford need,” Oliver Rowe told me. “Dunton, for example, had very specific requirements for engineers with powertrain expertise when it became a centre of excellence. Many of the skills were available locally.”

BAE Systems is another one of the county’s industrial champions, maintaining a strong presence in the middle of Essex, with its roots going back to Marconi and the birthplace of radio in Chelmsford.

A spokesman explains that the company’s links with universities in Essex and in the East of England have proven to be a valuable resource, running several important projects and programmes through strategic partnerships.

ESSLAB is another company that has benefited not just through direct recruitment, but by building a collaborative relationship with academia to shape the skills available.

“We have invested heavily in a recent move to its state-of-the art site and this move has been a key factor in attracting talented employees with the appropriate technical skills to help drive growth,” notes MD Cliff Marshall.

“We are now working with the University of Essex to extend its recruitment programme and further develop talent in the region.”

The 19-acre Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence (CEME) campus is home to more than 100 industrial tenants, who have created over 3,500 new jobs and delivered in excess of 500 engineering apprenticeships.

CEME is a 19-acre campus in Rainham, within the boundaries of historic Essex but also plugged in to the entrepreneurial energy and enthusiasm of East London

In addition to the university graduates, the county’s manufacturers have actively supported the apprenticeship schemes, and CEME is a great example of this partnership in action.

“Skillnet have been running the Ford Motor Company Apprenticeship Programme from CEME for around 10 years, using a number of the engineering workshop and classroom facilities to deliver apprentice training,” says Chris Kenny, Head of Delivery, Apprenticeship Programme Manager, Ford Motor Company.

“They provide an ideal space to introduce technical engineering education in a safe and clean working environment that places a significant emphasis on the health, safety and wellbeing. This has been particularly evident during our COVID-19 return to work plans which, with the support and collaboration of the CEME team, we have achieved successfully.”

In the ‘war for talent’, Essex manufacturers seem to be on the winning side.

A creators’ county

Skills, geography, native charm – the raw ingredients may all be in place, but what makes the souffle rise?

BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre (ATC) is based at Great Baddow near Chelmsford, a R&D facility that delivers innovation, technology and future capability for BAE Systems and its joint venture partners, as well as for external clients like the Ministry of Defence, European Space Agency, Selex and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Collaboration is key to the success of the research programmes. ATC pulls technology through from its supply chain in Essex, creating an open innovation environment that involves many of the technology companies in the area. This is only possible because of the depth of the local manufacturing ecosystem.

“There is a lot of good research out there in Essex among both start-ups and established companies,” said a spokesman for the company. “We act like a technology broker to bring intellectual property owners together with potential users in our defence markets.

It’s a win-win scenario for everyone.” Essex has long proven to be a valuable base for advanced manufacturers like BAE Systems, with an established community of high-calibre skills and suppliers.

“Southend has a massive infrastructure of subcontractors,” explains Rega’s Roy Gandy. “When we have visitors and I drive them from my home near Maldon to our factory in Southend, we pass at least 10 factory estates on the way.”

The Rega Planar 10, clever engineering manufactured in Southend with the support of a carefully-cultivated network of local suppliers

The Rega Planar 10, clever engineering manufactured in Southend with the support of a carefully-cultivated network of local suppliers

Rega employs 90 staff, producing 2,000 turntables every month, in addition to a range of other audio products, and sells to more than 40 export markets. Not bad for a business set-up in 1973 with £2,000.

“Our subcontractors really are part of us; they are as important as we are. When you want a supplier to make something, you go to see them. Once you get to know the people and machines you can decide whether they can make what you want. You don’t just go for the cheapest quote; you go for the right supplier.

“Even if they have the higher prices, you choose the supplier who you can work with long-term on continuous improvement. Our injection moulding company used to be 200 yards from us. We have a very high-tech tool making company around the corner from us. Local suppliers are an advantage.”

With a population of more than 180,000, Southend (have I mentioned the pier?) is the county’s biggest town, and its specialist manufacturing sector has seen strong employment growth, adding 1,241 jobs in the past decade, with particular concentration in aerospace, maintenance, and food.

Besides ESSLAB, Rega and Ruark, Southend is also home to a market leading cleaning product manufacturer, EGL Homecare, and medtech company Olympus, one of the town’s largest employers.

Medical device manufacturing has proven to be a strategically important sector for the borough, creating a skilled local workforce that acts as a significant ‘attractor’ to similar businesses looking to develop or relocate.

According to O’Rourke, the quality of life in Essex makes it an easy sell to persuade people with the right skills to relocate, leading to the development of a great and self-reinforcing ecosystem of suppliers, partners, and staff.

“I love living in Southend. It is great to be by the seaside and the fantastic views. There is plenty of countryside in the region and lots of green spaces too. Why would you want to live in London when you can live here? Southend is an innovative place and the creative industries are flourishing.”

With friends like these

For some manufacturers, such as ESSLAB, the support of central and local government has made a critical contribution to the growth of the business.

“The company has found the support of the Essex Chamber of Commerce and the Department for International Trade incredibly helpful in understanding the challenges and opportunities that come with entry into new international markets.

ESSLAB enjoys a positive working relationship with the Local Authority and are also members of the Southend Business Partnership,” says Cliff Marshall. However, most of the manufacturers interviewed felt that their successes had been achieved with maximum effort on their part, and a minimum of support.

“We haven’t had much support from the government in the past,” says Blackman & White’s Ichikawa-White.

“I’ve never heard from the local authority,” adds Gandy. “We asked them to put a bus route to our industrial estate, but nothing happened.”

The highly regarded Invest Essex investment promotion agency was shuttered by Essex County Council at the end of April, while it ‘evaluated’ other options to support businesses. You might have thought that the evaluation would have come prior to the closure, but you’d be wrong.

Ever the optimist, Ichikawa-White says that if Essex manufacturing can thrive without support, then perhaps a national refocusing on the importance of manufacturing, in light of its contributions during the COVID-19 crisis, and as the country looks forward to life beyond the Brexit transition period, will see industry go from strength to strength.

“COVID-19 has put manufacturing in the spotlight, and I hope that in conjunction with financiers, the government will work with us to provide a more robust support system, particularly in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. I think the government should give British manufacturing a bit more clout when competing with other countries. Now is absolutely the right time for the government to support exporters.”

CEME’s Williams believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted not just the importance nationally of having a strategic approach to engineering and manufacturing sectors, but also the ingenuity of engineering and manufacturing in the United Kingdom – and Essex has played a key part in that.

“Who would have thought that in Dagenham, at a manufacturing site that makes diesel engines, we could make ventilators for human health? And who would have thought that this could be achieved in six weeks?” Williams asks rhetorically.

“Well, people in engineering and manufacturing would have known this – and now many more people in the rest of the country, along with the government, know this too.”