The challenge of added value manufacturing...
If there is one thing as consumers that annoys us more than products which fail to live up to our expectations, then it is products which fail to live up to the claims of the manufacturer. And the irritation is the same regardless of the value of the product. For example, I have, over the years, found myself getting extremely cross in the mornings when medium sliced bread that turns out, in actuality, to be only mostly medium sliced. Every now and then through the loaf, you would get a thick slice followed by a thin slice. And that plays havoc with the toaster. When I come down for breakfast, I want two slices of golden brown toast, not one slice that is black and another that is barely more than luke warm bread. If I wanted randomly sliced bread, I could by an uncut loaf and slice it myself.
What we all demand as consumers - indeed what has been so brilliantly recognised in the advertising of one well known manufacturer of wood preserver - are products which do exactly what it says on the tin. Of course, that throws up its own challenge for those responsible with marketing their company's products. In todays increasingly competitive global markets, differentiating your product from those of your competitors must be getting harder and harder, especially in sectors which are characterised by large numbers of products of broadly similar specifications. How tempting must it be to resort, at times, to claims which are, shall we say, somewhat exaggerated?
However, let's not forget that many streets run two ways: the consumer has to take some responsibility for product selection. If we, as consumers, fail to communicate, or to understand, the complexities of our own application, then the chances of the manufacturer supplying us with a product that will do the job we want are significantly reduced. Luckily, in my experience, most suppliers tend adopt a 'customer is always right' philosophy with sales, even when the customer is quite clearly to blame.
Much has been written about the future of manufacturing in this country, but I think most would agree that success depends upon making goods with a significant added value. We must bear in mind, though, that regardless of the value we think we are adding, there will always be a nominal ceiling price for any product in any given sector. An inevitable consequence of added-value manufacturing is that most of those products will be more complex than the cheaper alternatives from the emerging economies, but we still have to be able to manufacture our products cost-effectively. Among other things, that means specifying components which are up to the job, and which are right first time.
Never, then, has the relationship between the consumer and the supplier been more important. The very future of the UK's manufacturing base may well depend upon it.
Mark Simms, 1 June 2007