UK manufacturing and the art of doing up a tie
I remember, when I was young, the importance of finding the thing that you were best at. Being best at something gave status, at a time in our primary school lives when we were all trying to understand our place in the world. Sometimes it was badge that was carried around with pride. Sometimes it was a consolation prize after we’d just realised that we weren’t the fastest runner or the best footballer or the most talented musician. A friend or a teacher would come over, put an arm around you’re shoulder, and say: “Yes, but, you’re best at...” and something trivial would usually follow, like doing up a tie correctly or being really punctual. And even though we all knew that any sentence beginning with ‘yes but...’ was never going to end with anything meaningful, it did at least give us something to cling on to in the dog-eat-dog world of primary education.
Of course, there is great danger in being declared best at something too early in life. While basking in the glory, there is the temptation to rest on one’s laurels, only to discover some decades later that you are no longer best and that, actually, nobody is listening when you try to explain how, all those years ago, it was you who were indeed best. It’s a sentence that inevitably begins with a ‘yes, but...’ and we all know how well that always works out.
There is a lesson in all of this, and in these challenging times of Brexit impact analyses, productivity puzzles, service-led economies and global slow downs there is a real risk that UK manufacturing could be consigned to a footnote in history. The UK is slowly but surely slipping down the table of leading manufacturing nations, and the reticence to invest in technologies such as robotics and advanced automation can only accelerate that slide. If the worst happens, sitting back and reminiscing about the time when Britain’s industry was the powerhouse of the world isn’t going to cut any ice. That was three industrial revolutions ago and has no bearing on today’s consumer-driven-production economics.
But there is a glimmer of hope. In its ‘Readiness for the future of production’ report, the World Economic Forum looked at the drivers of production as defined as key enablers that position a country to capitalise on emerging technologies and opportunities in the future of production. That report was published a year ago, but data is still being pulled from it and new insight revealed. Looking at scores for drivers of production, the UK ranked fourth – behind the US, Singapore and Switzerland, but well ahead of the likes of Germany, France, Japan and all of the emerging manufacturing powers. True, we’re not best, but certainly this is better than the consolation prize, and it dangles in front of us the possibility of remaining at the forefront of global manufacturing if we are prepared to embrace the technologies that can drive production forward. If not, all we have to look forward to is that arm around the shoulder.
Mark Simms Editor