Sponsored story: Looking to the future of UK manufacturing

Nigel Platt of ABB, pictured, offers a manifesto for manufacturing success.

I recently attended a debate at the Royal Academy of Engineering, entitled 'This House believes that a manufacturing sector accounting for at least 20% of GDP will provide the only basis for a balanced UK economy'. The debate argued both for and against the case for building a greater contribution for manufacturing towards the UK's GDP (its current share stands at 13%). In his plea in support of the motion, Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation attempted to redefine the debate as 'why making stuff in the UK matters'. His argument was that the continued ability to 'make stuff' presents the best opportunities to protect against future recessions and avoid over-reliance on one sector. Certainly, when you look at the past two years, it is almost certainly the resilient performance of the UK's manufacturing sector that has left us in a comparatively better state than many other countries following the recent recession. The UK remains the 6th largest manufacturer in the world, despite some high profile manufacturing closures. Overall, the UK's manufacturing output remained stable during the recession and today manufactured goods make up more than 40% of our exports. This is supported by the September statistics from the Office for National Statistics, which shows a continued growth of 4.8% in UK manufacturing in September 2010 compared with September 2009. In his recent article 'Re-manufacturing consent', Dr Leslie Budd, reader in social enterprise at the Open University Business School, expresses his surprise that manufacturing is still not the centerpiece of economic policy in the UK. I must say that I agree with this. I also agree with his opinion that more needs to be done to educate people at all levels about why manufacturing continues to matter in the UK. For starters, manufacturing in the UK is not dead. 'Manufacturing', in its widest modern sense, covers everything from finished metal products through to the food, pharmaceutical and personal care industries to name but a few. On the same point, today's manufacturing environment is nothing like that of the late 1970s, an era which is often singled out by those keen to distance us from a manufacturing-based future. Vast strides forward have been made in everything from quality to efficiency and productivity. Products made in the UK continue to perform a vital role globally. Nor do we have to accept that we cannot compete with low cost countries. As someone involved in the supply of robots and automation to industry, I can point to many examples of where the adoption of robots and automated technology has helped UK companies of all sizes to boost their international competitiveness. Indeed, the comparatively similar costs of implementing automation systems worldwide mean that UK companies can compete equally. Tackling the negative perceptions about manufacturing is about putting in place the right conditions to create the next generation of engineers. It is about encouraging investment and participation in research and innovation. It is also about encouraging companies to put in place the best available technologies, such as robots and automated production processes that will help them to be more competitive. So how do we achieve this? First, it is about ensuring that everyone, from the public through to the Government, understands that manufacturing and engineering have a vital role to play in the UK's future prosperity. The creation of a longer term view will in turn help to stimulate investment, with companies investing in new capital equipment and the fundamentals put in place to educate and train future engineers. But we can't do it alone. Support must come from the UK Government, which must embrace the manufacturing sector in its vision for the future and then do all it can both to understand it and nurture it, through the provision of investment and removal of the barriers that have hindered its growth. Whatever happens, the question that will determine the landscape of the UK's manufacturing sector in 30 years' time really boils down to this: do we want to merely invest for the present, doing what's needed to directly tackle our current problems or do we want to invest in laying down the foundations for future growth?