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NEC, Birmingham(B40 1NT)

28/09/2021 - 30/09/2021

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Farnborough, Hants(GU14 6TQ)

06/10/2021 - 07/10/2021

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NEC Birmingham(B40 1NT)

03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

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Improving the state of UK manufacturing

Improving the state of UK manufacturing

A recently published report published has warned that UK manufacturing is being prevented from becoming 'wholly competitive' by a national industrial culture that discourages companies from investing in vital long-term business drivers such as skills development and technological innovation. The report, published by the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG), highlights many firms' reluctance to engage with available support packages and business development programmes as further evidence of manufacturing businesses disinclination to seek advice and collaborate in order to grow.

The report is the product of a six-month inquiry by the APMG, chaired by Conservative MP Chris White and Labour's Jonathan Reynolds MP. It calls on government to not only do more to create and foster a pro-investment culture in UK manufacturing, but to also restructure key interactions between manufacturing businesses and policymakers and take steps to build competitive business practices into manufacturers' strategic thinking.

In particular, the report urges the Government to lead a cross-party initiative, in consultation with industry, to establish a ten-year fiscal framework designed to encourage manufacturing businesses to adopt more ambitious growth strategies based on longer-term investment. Crucially, the report calls on all political parties to honour the framework regardless of the outcome of the next general election. The report further calls for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to radically restructure its civil service manufacturing team, with vertical teams to better mirror and support supply chain sectors and ensure growth and stability of OEMs, with horizontal teams focused on size of company, rather than sector.

A need for material change

Much of the content of the report will be welcomed by those at the forefront of UK manufacturing - both the manufacturers themselves and the suppliers to those businesses. Citing a need for a material change in the way the economy operates, Mike Wilson of ABB Robotics comments: "Traditionally, the government has taken a 'laissez-faire' approach, where the market was left to run itself with minimal state interference. On the face of it, this left the running of business to business. Arguably, however, what happened was that British industries were allowed to stagnate or else relocate to other countries in the pursuit of profit, causing a national decline the impact of which has only really just come home to roost.

"To reverse this will involve two things - long term planning and a hands-on approach by government in conjunction with industry to create new employment opportunities. The ideal situation is for government to create a framework where manufacturing can prosper and then let those with experience in manufacturing run things. This approach is already evident in a number of areas, with initiatives at both organisational level, (MAS, TSB) and sector level (automotive and aerospace in particular) already making a difference."

Key to the success of these initiatives is long-term planning and the express creation of a national aim, or set of aims, where an economy is geared towards having the resources and expertise to assert its position in a particular field, an approach openly adopted by China in its quest to become the world's leading economic superpower. Wilson argues that adopting a similar approach in the UK would encompass all aspects, from production resources through to creating an education system suitably geared towards meeting the aim.

"The progress of manufacturing in the UK should be built on its ability to combine automation and skilled human workers in order to create a competitive national advantage," adds Wilson. "This means equipping UK companies with the best machinery and ensuring a supply of workers with access to relevant, useful and accessible training. Where the availability of skilled workers is an issue, no-one should be without the opportunity to train and fill those roles."

As a measure of success, Wilson argues that we need to look beyond Gross Domestic Product as the benchmark for economic performance. "Perhaps there should be an additional new yardstick - maybe 'Gross National Potential' - that measures the potential productivity of those within it as well, enabling what's currently being achieved to be compared to what could be achieved if the benefits of a combined automated and human workforce were to be realised."

Importantly, Wilson argues that the increased use of automation does not have to result in the permanent displacement of manual workers. "Read any discussion thread or comment board on a robotics-related site or article and there will always be one topic that comes up repeatedly, namely the impact of robotic automation on traditional manual employment. But this in itself cannot be a valid reason to prevent the use of automated technology." Wilson cites a report from London market research company Metra Martech on behalf of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) which found that robots will help create more than two million jobs over the next eight years. While it acknowledges that certain jobs will be reduced it stresses that many more jobs are set to be created thanks to the boost in productivity and competitiveness that robotics deliver in manufacturing enterprises.

Wilson concludes: "For the future of a prosperous UK economy, what's needed is not less automation, but more innovation, both at state and industry level, to make sure that we have both the equipment and the people we need."
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