Productive debate

Posted on 2 Jun 2014 by The Manufacturer

Speakers set a high bar for discussion at the National Manufacturing Debate with insight into the productivity imperative, the wonders of incremental gains and the challenges of quantifying productivity in design.

“Passion alone is not enough,”  Professor Rajkumar Roy told his audience at the National Manufacturing Debate at Cranfield University as he implored them to embrace global competitiveness through increased productivity.

Yet as fundamental as productivity is to Britain’s competitive profile in the global marketplace – and as carefully as it is often monitored on the factory floor – the issue is one which has been glossed over in many industry debates in recent years. Instead, factoring challenges like skills gaps and access to finance have stolen the limelight.

Innovation and Productivity

David Willetts, minister for science and universities visited the National Manufacturing Debate and primed the audience for an afternoon of discussion.

He updated delegates on government’s efforts to support innovation, taking lessons from the US and Germany to establish a “richer mix” of research institutions in the UK including organisations which “fund projects much closer to market than we have traditionally done”.

Successive publications have recognised the link between innovation and productivity. Specifically, researchers has drawn links between the intensity of trade-mark and patent activity in firms and their productivity.

Therefore, in a question and answer session with the minister, it was pertinent that questions focussed on government measures to support patent filling and the conversion of innovation into commercial capital.

One question challenged the minister to explain why the UK has filed so few patents around the exploitation of innovations like grapheme, which was discovered in Manchester, compared to competitor nations including Chain. Another question asked the minister if there is any evidence to show that the Patent Box has yet spurred more patents to be filed in the UK.

In response to the first matter, Mr Willetts acknowledged that it was “a fair challenge” and made two points.

Firstly, he said some would argue the UK is “smarter” in the patents it takes out, supporting quality rather than quantity. Secondly he observed a lack of available leadership from sector primes in some areas to support the exploitation of patents. For example, he suggested Samsung, which does not manufacturer in the UK, would be the obvious prime to explore applications for grapheme. In this scenario Willets said a “second best strategy” of becoming a European R&D centre for the prime is advisable.

On the impact of the Patent Box Willets said the Life Sciences sector has been strongly influenced by the policy, with GlaxoSmithKine investing significantly on the heels of its announcement.

However, looking more broadly, the minister said he was not aware of any evidence to link increased patent activity in other sectors with the Patent Box.

But this year Cranfield University felt the time was right to tackle this important issue head on. Other nations around the world, from China to eastern European nations and Australia have, or are developing, national productivity improvement programmes to boost them up the industrial value chain. Britain, says Cranfield, must not be complacent.

To provide a foundation for debate on the best measures of productivity, Cranfield produced a white paper which it launched on May 21. Prof Roy communicated its findings.

The report is challenging. It questions traditional or historically simplistic measurements of productivity, and the way in which these have been reported in the national press, distorting popular perceptions of industrial output and value add.

Building on arguments made in the Foresight report Future of Manufacturing, Cranfield shows the merits of using a Total Factor Productivity measurement to reflect the activities of a high value manufacturing workforce.

Under such a measurement, says Cranfield, the UK is second only to the US for its rate of productivity growth, even though labour productivity is relatively poor.

Cranfield’s white paper also builds on Foresight’s analysis of the social impact of manufacturing with a suggested “wellbeing index” which reflects how industrial robustness relates to wages, work-life balance, employment levels, safety and more.

Such considerations are important for a mature industrial nation as Professor Kagermann, German industrialist and leading light of Industrie 4.0 told delegates at a Royal Academy of Engineering event in February.

The ability to demonstrate to German government that pushing out the boundaries of automation, the industrial internet, big data and analytics in a unified movement would bring sustainable industrial competiveness as well as social benefits was fundamental to gaining support from all parties he said. Industrie 4.0 is now referenced as a matter for national interest in all major political manifestos in Germany.

Does size matter?

The white paper piqued the interest of delegates during the afternoon debate with questions interrogating the data involved and the consequent recommendations which were split into company size brackets.

The data seemed to suggest, as Prof Roy put it, that family owned manufacturing SMEs tend to struggle in creating a “culture of productivity” in their organisations, a theory which was explored in later debate.

Ways in which to help create a productivity culture and provide a structured framework for productivity improvement were highlighted by Tracey Marsden, an employment lawyer working at Nabarro LLP. She showed how a proactive approach to performance management could increase output, innovation, quality and work satisfaction, amounting to complex productivity gains.

A strong theme in Ms Marsden’s presentation was the powerful effect that responsibility can have on productivity and this was consistent with the message Richard Kenworthy, plant director at Toyota Deeside, communicated when he spoke to delegates.

A US-UK comparison using Cranfield's manufacturing wellbeing index
A US-UK comparison using Cranfield’s manufacturing wellbeing index

Aggregation of marginal gains

Mr Kenworthy’s story of aggregating marginal gains to reduce engine manufacturing takt time by nine seconds without any additional staff of capital investment struck a strong chord with the audience. It’s an achievement Kenworthy insists is founded on giving responsibility and autonomy to employees to contribute small improvements to a common large goal. You can read more about this improvement journey at

Kenworthy’s contribution also made a strong impact on fellow speaker Warren East Former CEO of microprocessor design and IP company ARM Holdings.

Like Kenworthy, Mr East expressed a high value for increasing productivity via an aggregation of marginal gains. He drew well documented comparisons with the evolution of competition in sport and the advance of competition in business to show that the era of great leaps in capability is largely over and that those who can see opportunities in the detail of operations are those who will continue to push the competitive envelope.

Focusing on the alignment of gains in different business disciplines or departments, East told his audience “I hate trade offs” and explained how he sought to optimise efficiency and productivity across a business without an advance in one area compromising another.

He explored the difficulty of optimising productivity in the design “intangible” process and urged designers and manufacturers to work more closely to find mutual productivity gains.

Finally, East considered the UK’s competitive position in the global market place. Despite being characterised with smaller firms that the US, East insisted that a high value business proposition can allow British firms to punch above their weight.

“We have a challenge of scale,” he said. “But we can become very significant within global industry structures.”

Other morning presentations were delivered by Dr Martin Howarth of Sheffield Hallam University’s National Centre for Food Engineering and David Caddle, area director for the Manufacturing Advisory Service.

You can read more about all the presentations and interactions with the audience at the National Manufacturing Debate in the forthcoming report on the event.

To access Cranfied’s White Paper on UK Manufacturing Productivity go to