What sets UK manufacturing apart from the rest?

Posted on 15 Aug 2017 by Jonny Williamson

All too often, comparisons of UK manufacturing to its international counterparts only focus on weaknesses. So, here’s a more balanced opinion.

UK manufacturing employs 2.7 million people and makes up between 10–12% of UK GVA – image courtesy of Icon Aerospace Technology.
UK manufacturing employs 2.7 million people and makes up between 10–12% of UK GVA – image courtesy of Icon Aerospace Technology.

UK manufacturing employs 2.7 million people, accounts for 45% of the UK’s total exports and makes up between 10–12% of UK GVA. The UK is currently the ninth largest manufacturing nation in the world.

Those are far stronger figures than many people realise, but in isolation they don’t offer a clear picture as to where the UK’s strengths lie.

The Manufacturer recently sat down with Tim Pryce, CEO of Icon Aerospace Technology, to discuss what he thought were the strengths of UK manufacturing, and what factors would help make the nation even more competitive.

“What really sets UK manufacturing apart is our innovative technology and academic institutions, both in a heritage and pedigree sense. Our universities [more than 50 of which are ranked in the world’s top 200] are responsible for many truly cutting-edge global developments, for example.

“Furthermore, the ‘Made in GB or UK’ brand still holds a great deal of power around the world, but to really leverage that power, we must get out there, we can’t just sit behind a computer.

“It also comes down to belief. Take the widely-quoted statistic that 95% of global inventions come from the UK, but just 5% are manufactured here. Surely, we don’t have the belief when we develop something that we can do it here, otherwise that proportion would be significantly different.”

Over the past 10 years, Nottinghamshire-based Icon Aerospace Technology has risen further up the value chain by producing ever more innovative and technologically-advanced engineered products.

That transition has been enabled by recognising where the company was on the product lifecycle curve and, more importantly, where it wanted to be, and making strategic investments accordingly.

Pryce noted: “Many UK manufacturers often defend or justify the adage, ‘Invented in the UK, designed in America, made in the Far East and sold globally’, through investments, by saying they didn’t have the cash to do that or pursue that opportunity, for example. We, as leaders, have to look at ourselves and say how do we change that.”

On that point, Pryce believes that a significant area for improvement is the UK’s strengths and depths of leadership – or lack of.

“Leadership is very different from management, leadership means you are going to make mistakes, which you have to be able to learn from. Leadership is, by definition, a lonely place, so you have to be resilient.

“Having the support and financial backing from a board is absolutely essential to give leaders the chance to explore and try to do something different. That’s a big difference I found while living and working in America. If you try and it doesn’t work, you typically hear: ‘What did you learn, or ‘Great that you tried, what can we do differently next time?’

“In the UK, you more often hear: ‘I told you that would never work’, or ‘I said you shouldn’t try that’. On a business level, the UK would appear to be more of the keep your head down, don’t make waves, persuasion; whereas America, for example, puts more stock in the no risk, no reward approach.”