Out and about: TM on the road again

TM's editorial team is out and about at a wide variety of industry conferences, debates and factory tours month in, month out. Let’s get a snapshot of the most interesting events in the last two months.

Made in Britain Henry Smith MP and the Mayor of Crawley
Made in Britain Henry Smith MP and the Mayor of Crawley

‘Homeshoring’ or the repatriation of manufacturing from abroad. It’s something which is whispered about as just-in-time manufacturing and mass customisation make long lead times an unacceptable compromise for cheap labour.

While it may be over optimistic to say there is a real turning of the off-shoring tide, which has seen so much UK manufacturing go abroad, in January Vent-Axia officially joined a growing pool of companies to have decided that there’s no place like home for making their products.

With the opening of a new manufacturing line in Crawley, Vent-Axia, a manufacturer of ventilation systems, was able to state that all of its fans for domestic use are now designed and manufactured in the UK. Ronnie George, MD of Vent-Axia’s parent company Volution, said that the move was the culmination of a four year strategy to gain better stock control and improve responsiveness to customer demand. He also said that rising labour costs in China were a concern.

At the official launch of the new line, which will create 20 manufacturing jobs, media and local politicians met many long serving members of staff who confidently explained each step in the production process for the products they work on. There are 8500 SKUs coming through the factory.

The tour also highlighted some innovative experiments in simplifying packaging and using QR coding to improve the experience of trade customers and showed off the driving skills of warehouse staff – there were many comments on their efficient handling of the narrow isle manup forklifts and low level pickers which skimmed around the facility with the help of under floor guidance systems.

The major cost for Vent-Axia in moving manufacturing back to the UK has been a £350,000 investment in tooling, though further costs are anticipated in order to achieve necessary increases in capacity at the injection moulding facility in Reading. No additional manufacturing facilities have been built to accommodate the repatriated work. Instead, space for the new line has been found through making more efficient use of the existing shop floor.

Engineering with drama

Stage Technologies’ kit flew Pink at the Isle of Wight Festival. Image courtesy of Kevin Mazur
Stage Technologies’ kit flew Pink at the Isle of Wight Festival. Image courtesy of Kevin Mazur

What would you give to get behind the scenes in the West End, Cirque de Soleil, the Isle of Wight Festival or even a major gathering of the Mormon Church? It’s all in a day’s work for  engineers at Stage Technologies, a manufacturer of automation systems for theatres and large live events.

The £25 million turnover company operates around the globe and encounters unique engineering challenges at every turn. When TM visited its London site in December 2012 engineers were working on the assembly of a giant and immensely complex robot to fit inside the puppet of King Kong in a forthcoming performance of the classic story in Australia – MD Mark Ager had just returned from China where a 600 tonne automation system made up of three huge robot arms carrying massive display screens had played its part in a finely choreographed aerial acrobatics display.

Mr Ager says that business is good at the company, despite the wider economic downturn, as theatre going actually tends to increase during a recession.

“People can’t afford holidays but they can treat themselves to a night out at a show,” he says. But being busy brings its own challenges. As Stage Technologies looks for manufacturing efficiencies and expands its service business (p40), Ager bemoans the lack of opportunity to compare notes with other business leaders on best practice in building useful skills matrices or tips on negotiating in the many foreign cultures an export-based company must learn to navigate. Hopefully he’ll get the chance at TM’s Automate UK conference where the MD will speak about his experience upskilling theatre staff to work with high-tech automation systems after decades of pulling ropes and shoving scenery into place.

Automate UK, a Future Factory event from TM, takes place on February 26 in London. 

Panel debate at the World Economic Forum
Panel debate at the World Economic Forum

Give government a lesson in risk management

On January 8 the World Economic Forum released its Global Risks 2013 report in London with a presentation to national and industry press.

In the minutiae of this publication was a significant fact – unforeseen negative consequences of regulation jumped from 48th to 43rd place in the top 50 global risks identified through consultation with 1000 global experts from industry, government, academia and civil society.

The jump came as a result of rising concern over the potential impact of inappropriate regulation.

Axel Lehmen, chief risk officer for Zurich Insurance Group who helped shape the report said: “This is a cry for stronger dialogue between the practitioners – the private sector – and the legislators in the public sector.”

Mr Lehmen said there is an imperative, for large multinational organisations to share competencies and knowledge around techniques for risk management with global governments.

“Companies have realised that risks do not stop at the gates of your factory,” he commented. “They have realised too that the risks one company faces are often not different from the risks that other companies and society are facing.

“Similarly with global risks we can see that they do not stop at national borders and that they require a globally coordinated approach.”

The World Economic Forum has long advocated a more structured, corporate-style approach to risk management from governments. In 2007 it recommended that governments appoint national or country risk officers. Such a role would be comparable to the role of chief risk officers in the corporate world and would help to break down damaging silo perceptions of risks in government departments said WEF.

Industry leaders in the UK would surely support this. TM’s readers have often told the magazine that they despair of the lack of coordination between government departments – particularly the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and the Departments for Education and Energy and Climate Change. A better understanding of the interconnected nature of the risks associated with policy making by these departments, would be hugely beneficial. WEF says that appointing country risk officers would be the first step in enabling decision makers in the public and private sectors to benchmark a nation’s level of resilience to global risks. In particular

WEF said that this understanding would clarify resilience in supply chains – a rising concern on executive and political agendas according to the organisation.