The Big Debate: Does the UK need a manufacturing strategy?

Posted on 23 May 2013

The National Manufacturing Debate once again proved to be a particularly valuable debate but the theme – Do we need a manufacturing strategy? – split the panel.

Dick Elsy, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, endorsed a strategic approach. “The knowledge, the precise understanding of how to make something better and more accurate, is the anchor point. We’ve shown that [our Catapult] model keeps manufacturing in the UK through access to the knowledge.”

Others who supported the strategic approach included Brian Holliday of Siemens Industry UK, Mike Rigby, head of manufacturing and transport at Barclays and Professor John Nicholls of Cranfield University. Prof Nicholls said that his work on surface coatings for advanced engineering applications had benefited from the Catapult and involvement of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Others were less sanguine about the need for a true strategy. Peter Marsh, ex manufacturing editor of the FT, said strategies can take a long time to define and fulfil, where a better approach is to identify what the UK is good at and assist that in a more ad hoc approach. He agreed that the UK should work on ways to capture more of the value in supply chains for large assemblies like cars, where often the parts come from abroad and are only assembled here.

John Elliott, founder and chairman of dehumidifier manufacturer Ebac, provided a refreshing view on strategic manufacturing for Britain. His philosophy is that companies have a big market for commodity manufactured goods here in the UK but we perceive, incorrectly, that we can’t make consumer goods here anymore. He company will start making washing machines in its factory in Durham later this year, the first time washing machines will be made in Britain for four years.

He told the debate “I would ban innovation for a year, to focus on the basic things first like exchange rates and trade tariffs. “If we create a level playing field for the UK in the world, things like manufacturing will take care of themselves. Come the revolution!” he joked.

Conclusions? This lively debate threw up many strong opinions and theories, details of which can be found in our report on the Debate in the July issue. Overall, a form of strategising growth in British manufacturing was popular, the reason being that left to free market forces the sector has shrunk in the last 30-years.

Consistency of message and policy was essential to build long term growth, where successive governments should not tinker with the pillars that make manufacturing strong, such as tax breaks for capital investment. Schools and universities must be better linked to industry to inspire people to work there from a young age and the UK needs to interpret EU procurement rules more similarly to France and Germany, which assess local economic benefits of a domestic company into the bid decision.