Jane Gray, examines one of government’s final flings for industry in 2011 – The Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Fund.
“And have you seen this last invention that Cable has produced! Some supply chain initiative. I’m not sure I see how that will work or help. All these announcements from government are just masking the fact that the fundamental issues for industry are not being properly addressed.”
These were the ire-filled and cynical words of a manufacturing MD in response to the news in December that Business Secretary Vince Cable had just launched another new scheme to support UK Manufacturing – the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Fund.
“SME manufacturing leaders may therefore need to shelve the cynicism for a little while yet, at least until further details are announced.” Anonymous.
This £125 million package is designed to challenge industry to come up with innovative ways of improving the efficiency, effectiveness and agility of UK supply chains across manufacturing sectors. The ultimate intent is to encourage investment in the UK by the world’s leading manufacturing powers. At the CBI Annual Dinner on December 6 Dr Cable expressed the motivation thus: “in order to choose to base operations in the UK, leading manufacturers need to know they will have a range of firms able to supply quality parts and services with complete reliability. This is what the Mittelstand offers major manufacturers such as Siemens, Bosch and BMW in Germany.”
Dr Cable’s intention to see UK suppliers become global players may be laudable, indeed critical if the UK is to be a credible manufacturing location in the future. But a world weary industry, which has seen a host of government initiatives come and go without halting the UKs slide down the ratings of global manufacturing powers, is now deeply sceptical of the ability of such schemes to deliver. The key questions are: Who should be looking to apply to this fund; how will they do so; and how will the support manifest itself?
“All these announcements from government are just masking the fact that the fundamental issues for industry are not being properly addressed.” Anonymous.
Definitive answers remain hazy. The name of the fund itself expresses an unspecific target – it is not the first time industry has been led to question “what do government mean by ‘advanced manufacturing’?” So far the increasingly ubiquitous ‘manufacturing for low carbon technologies’ has been the flag waved by BIS.
And despite a promise that details on the application process would be ‘coming soon’ on December 6 the Technology Strategy Board, which is taking ownership of the fund, said that updates should not be looked for until this month. Some lag between the announcement of funding and the details of its structure may be understandable. But, given the initiative fatigue many manufacturers are now expressing, there is a risk of losing the moment if tangible details cannot be seen at the same time as Ministers attempt to titillate the interest of industry.
The scope of projects which might qualify for funding so far seems very broad. Applications might focus on the need for capital equipment, training or research and development. Such flexibility is, of course, far from negative – but it does leave smaller manufacturers with a lack of inspiration or examples around which to shape funding bids. With time at a premium it is therefore likely that many will simply hunker down with the day to day.
To combat this Cable has pin-pointed a major role for large manufacturers in prompting supply chain involvement with the fund. Chairman of BAE Systems, Dick Olver indicated that he would welcome this responsibility. He commented at the Financial Times ‘Future of Manufacturing’ conference in December that his organisation would willingly work with suppliers to improve both BAE’s position and international standing of the UK supply base.
With big names like BAE throwing their support behind the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Fund and positive noises from trade organisations like CBI and EEF, there is hope that this scheme will produce the trousers to go with the talk. SME manufacturing leaders may therefore need to shelve the cynicism for a little while yet, at least until further details are announced.