National Manufacturing Debate: conclusions

Posted on 2 Jun 2016 by Jonny Williamson

The seventh annual National Manufacturing Debate took take place at Cranfield University at the end of May. Jonny Williamson rounds up the discussion.

This year’s National Manufacturing Debate was chaired by Lord Alec Broers and brought together leading professionals representing a range of industrial sectors to promote networking and collaboration, and discuss and dissect current challenges within industry.

High-profile figures from industry, government and academia examined 2016’s central topic – How can UK manufacturing growth match the best of the G7?

Anna Soubry MP at Cranfield University's National Manufacturing Debate
Anna Soubry, Minister for Small Business, Industry & Enterprise.

The day’s first keynote speaker was Anna Soubry, Minister for Small Business, Industry & Enterprise. The MP highlighted the importance of manufacturing as a whole to the UK economy – while furthering Westminster’s fixation with UK aerospace and automotive.

“This government knows just how important manufacturers are to our economy and that’s why we are investing an extra £1bn in aerospace and automotive R&D, and nearly £7bn in the UK’s research infrastructure,” said Soubry.

“R&D and innovation will be vital to ensuring a successful and cutting-edge UK manufacturing sector as we move towards the fourth industrial revolution,” she added.

A modern ‘industrial strategy’

Her words were at odds with several delegates’ opinions, who expressed concern that this government was yet to give full backing to a modern industrial strategy.

It’s a call I’ve heard expressed by many over the years, though arguably the calls are getting louder. It was heard most stridently during the CBI’s Future of Manufacturing conference at the beginning of May 2016.

Cranfield University launched a white paper at the event – UK Manufacturing Growth and its Economic Contribution. 

You can download a copy here.

In her opening presentation, Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general, suggested several ways the nation could create a more dynamic manufacturing sector, help diversify the UK’s economy and foster resilience to economic shocks. “The solutions at the end of the day may well be cross-industry. But the building blocks are sector strategies – modern industrial strategies,” she said.

A speech from Sajid Javid, Business Secretary, was scheduled to follow Fairbairn, a speech which – potentially – may have addressed the industrial strategy-criticism levelled at him. However, the speech wasn’t made. A Japanese trade delegation unexpectedly arrived in London which required his attention.

Disappointingly, it was a strikingly similar story at Cranfield. After delivering her keynote, Soubry was scheduled to participate in the afternoon’s debate, and the ensuing Q&A session. However, due to the ongoing steel crisis, the Minister felt her presence was more urgently needed at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).

In the future, should Government ever seek assistance in uncovering manufacturing successes, one would suggest they look towards the rear of their stove.

Crunching the numbers

Cranfield's FANUC robot which is used to pick up, inspect, and replace aircraft components - image courtesy of Cranfield University.
Cranfield’s Professor Roy claimed that manufacturing’s contribution to the UK economy is far greater than previously thought – by some £50bn.

The morning continued with a range of presentations from the likes of Terry Scuoler (CEO, EEF); Hamid Mughal (global director of manufacturing, Rolls-Royce); Anna Leach (head of economic analysis, CBI), and Professor Rajkumar Roy (director of manufacturing, Cranfield).

All of whom offered varying definitions of manufacturing, resulting in radically different estimations of the sector’s contribution to the UK economy.

Professor Roy, for example, claimed that the contribution is far greater than previously thought – by some £50bn.

In total, new Cranfield research suggests that manufacturing is worth £208bn – a 3.3% increase on the ONS figures typically quoted. Such a sum means that industry makes up around 13.5% of the UK’s economy, compared to the 10.2% usually attributed.

The widely differing estimations reflected the shift manufacturing businesses have undertaken of late – and continue take. Far from focusing solely on physical production, manufacturers have diversified to include a range of supporting activities, including design and ongoing customer service support.

Last year, Jon Cridland, the then director-general of CBI, estimated that manufacturing, “could account for 19% of the UK economy”.

Such figures raise the question, if everyone – government; industry; media; academia, and the wider public – acknowledged that a fifth of the UK’s economy was generated by manufacturing, would the sector be so disparaged?

Star speaker

Without question, the National Manufacturing Debate’s stand-out speaker for many – myself included – was John Reid, general manager of Michelin Tyres (Dundee) and director of Michelin Tyre Plc.

Following several fairly stat-heavy presentations, Reid delivered a passionate, thought-provoking presentation that centered on people power.

Promoted to the strategic role of site personnel manager in 2001, Reid spent four and half years overseeing a major transformation of the site; working closely with the Trade Unions to create a number of innovative solutions and agreements to deal with an ever more challenging industrial environment.

National Manufacturing Debate


  • Ben Wright – political correspondent, BBC


  • Phil Cartwright – CTO, HVM Catapult
  • Brian Holliday – managing director, Siemens Digital Factory
  • James Selka – CEO, MTA
  • Grant Jamieson – managing director, Winkworth Machinery
  • Professor Charalampos Makatsoris – manufacturing operations chair, Cranfield

He played a leading role in bringing significant investment; increased volumes; the installation of new machinery to produce the next-generation of tyres; re-engineering the logistics operation with the construction of a new 20,000 sqm warehouse, and creating an extra 140 production worker jobs.

By reducing almost 50 KPIs to just three, and focusing on what really mattered, Reid managed to coax a factory on its knees to not only survival, but to long-term success – becoming one of Michelin’s top performing sites in the process.

National Manufacturing Debate

The debate covered the challenges industry faces seemingly ad infinitum – a shortage in skills; access to finance; sky rocketing energy costs; governmental short-termism, and a lack of engagement with the makers of tomorrow (particularly women).

In a sea of middle-aged men, one young woman questioned whether or not we were adequately – and accurately – measuring our industry’s performance in these areas year-on-year versus other manufacturing nations.

Professor Rajkumar Roy – founder of the National Manufacturing Debate at Cranfield – was urged to implement such a measurement for discussion at next year’s event (May 24, 2017).

Judging from the responses and surrounding discussion, a response to the National Manufacturing Debate’s central question – How can UK manufacturing growth match the best of the G7? ­– could include:

  • For once, industry is playing to UK strengths – rather than being focused around the lowest labour cost, future growth will come from knowledge and innovation.
  • Manufacturers require a structured pipeline to add passion and pace to their innovation activities – engaging with the Catapults could be one way of achieving this; the network already works with 3,000 companies and more than 80 universities.
  • To take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution, manufacturers are going to need a “digital backbone” – something which may become easier following BIS’ Review of Business Broadband.
  • Accessing external finance remains a daunting proposition for many – what more can be done with the existing capacity, and how can what’s available be increased?
  • Is the lack of a formal industrial strategy holding back UK investment, both domestically and internationally? If so, the solution seems straight-forward.
  • All stakeholders – government, industry, academia – must take responsibility to better engage with the makers of tomorrow and promote the dynamic careers manufacturing offers.