Manufacturing Directors’ Conference – One year on

Posted on 9 Sep 2010 by The Manufacturer

On 12 November, 2009, TM’s annual Directors’ Conference played host to fierce debate over the responsibilities and requirements of UK manufacturing companies. One year on, has progress been made? Jane Gray investigates.

Last year’s Manufacturer Directors Conference (MDC) received excellent feedback from attendees who praised speakers for providing relevant and thought provoking presentations. Resoundingly, however, the memory that many took away was of the intense afternoon debate session.

Led by a panel of manufacturing exponents, all experts in their various fields, the debate session drew out the best and worst of manufacturing in the UK. The best was demonstrated in the passion and conviction that delegates had for their profession. The worst came in the consensus that this passion was simply not being communicated or capitalised on by the industry as a whole.

Here are some comments made by delegates and speakers last year on the challenges in skills, market exploitation and communication:

Linda Rawson, training and development manager at MX award winning company Gripple said:
There are many who are being lulled into a false sense of security at the moment; [they] assume that high unemployment will provide a bolster to the manufacturing workforce. This is false.

We need to put a higher value on our industry skills.

We need to take on the responsibility of working proactively with education to ensure a future workforce well versed in key industry concepts and skills-like constraint theory and lean or six sigma principles.

Employers need to realise the potential that creating this workforce would give- if they do not, British manufacturing will die a death.”

Tim Admans-Palmer, of Lewisham College’s The Skills People, contributed:
“The event provides a real opportunity for us to get under the skin of Britain’s top manufacturers and gain understanding of their frustrations and development needs.

“Mechanisms exist for working with employers, but we need their experience to support us, shape our strategy, our curriculum and our delivery methods. Without this knowledge transfer how can we support operational excellence and impart the right skills for the development of the manufacturers of tomorrow? “Manufacturers need to connect with local colleges and work in partnership; explore ways to tailor modern apprenticeships to fit their needs.

It’s no longer good enough to say young people are not being taught the right skills.”

Charles Morgan, MD of Morgan Motors, raised the imperative for investing in innovation and R&D. He identified obstacles for SMEs, but also opportunity. “For a small company like mine, looking to expand into new technology markets like electric cars, there are challenges in accessing funds and we rely on government bodies like TSB. It is vital that we have the technology to pursue these routes. Popular issues such as sustainability and the green agenda have given rise to a new enthusiasm for engineering and the challenges involved in making products that perform to the radically changed demands of our present and future.”

We are now a year on and have progressed another small step further into that future. Governments, both in the UK and further afield, have changed and the beleaguered global economy is on its way to recovery. But has business and industry reset itself in alignment? There certainly seems to be a growing zeitgeist for manufacturing in the UK. A crescendo of voices across the political spectrum, swearing fealty to industry and stating the sector’s importance to the rebalancing of the UK economy, are drawing out the benefit that could be brought in social regeneration to struggling regions.

But what does this noise mean about the competitive state of Britain’s leading manufacturers or the behaviour of the directors and CEOs who lead them? Have we overcome those obstacles that animated delegates to MDC 2009 and what are the new challenges that have come in their wake?

Jim Wade, principle of the JCB Academy will be speaking at MDC 2010 and has this to say about the progress of industry skills development in the UK: “The national curriculum is still based around the grammar school curriculum from the last century, if not the one before. It is therefore designed to enable students to progress and achieve success at academic disciplines. Although many schools and colleges have developed programmes that attempt to develop a more skills based approach these have yet to become main stream due to pressure to achieve success in traditional GCSE and A Level qualifications.” But The JCB Academy has set a precedent that could change this. Offering a mix of STEM focused GCSEs, A Level and Diploma qualifications the institution is a forerunner of the new University Technical Academies which are currently under development. These Academies will deliver a similar programme to that available at The JCB Academy and plans exist for up to 20 University Technical Academies to be opened in the next 2-5 years.

As far as industry best practice is concerned Nigel Stansfield, senior VP product and innovation at carpet tile manufacturer InterfaceFLOR, another MDC 2010 speaker, says developments in R&D approaches signify a metamorphosis in business. “Collaborative R&D is transforming innovation approaches. People are realising that it is far more beneficial to think of the world as your lab than to think of the lab as your world. Companies need to accept that there is great talent beyond their boundaries and collaborate to access that.” Stansfield points out that this approach will not only make far more adventurous R&D viable for SMEs with little cash to spare but that it marks a turn to longer term thinking in risk-reward planning. “The old approach was closed-door and secretive. You take all the risk and you reap all the reward. The trouble with that is that the implications of failure are dramatic and far more likely than if the pool of experience is wider and the risk is shared. Returns on success can still be lucrative, are likely to be more frequent and will bring broader shared benefits to industry.” Interface’s innovation agenda is heavily influenced by its commitment to environmental sustainability and Stansfield believes that the company’s strategy in this area represents another broad industry switch to more holistic thinking. “Our Fast Forward 2020 programme engages staff and builds understanding of how practices are tied to our environmental agenda and broader social and economic issues. This supports a common purpose across employee activity and means employees need to understand why they are carrying out certain operations.” Interface have found that this joined-up approach makes the pursuit of business strategy more effective; engaging employees in its development and helping to “recruit and retain committed employees.” Fast Forward 2020 is a great demonstration of pro-active industry communication with stakeholders, customers and society which highlights the exciting directions modern manufacturing is taking.

There are of course many other business functions and practices which have had to change; as a result of recession, socio-political pressure and due to realisations that business complexity has now reached new bounds. In the next issue of TM more MDC 2010 speakers will share their experiences of how these changes have impacted their organisations and, of course, the exploration will continue at MDC itself.

This year MDC will take place on November 18th at Chesford Grange, Warwickshire. The conference is preceded by a day of exclusive workshops and will be followed by our prestigious Manufacturer of the Year Awards.