The Industrial Strategy is dead, long live the…

May 04, 2021

The Manufacturing Assembly Network (MAN) launched its post Covid-19 MANifesto, recently, detailing the support the sector needs if it is going to continue its recovery from the pandemic.

Signed by MDs from the nine companies, the 10-point plan focuses on creating the business support and economic conditions required for UK manufacturing to become a global powerhouse once again.

Adam Cunningham, Managing Director of Muller Redditch, takes a look at the business support landscape and why dismissing the Industrial Strategy is another two steps backwards for manufacturing.

 Just over a year on from the first lockdown and there finally appears to be a ray of light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, well at least for those countries that have mobilised a successful vaccination programme.

Manufacturers have been hard bit by the turmoil and economic shocks, but on the whole the sector’s resilience has shone through again – in fact seven out of the nine MAN companies are back at pre-pandemic sales levels, a remarkable achievement.

The challenges are still there. Brexit disruption, Covid upheaval and major material shortages are all very much daily issues that we’re navigating our way through. In short, now is not the time for the Government to step back from supporting industry with our bounce back.

With this in mind, I was surprised and disappointed to read about the Industrial Strategy effectively being scrapped, especially as it was only launched four years ago. It has long been a business desire to have a sustainable long-term policy to support engineering and manufacturing, one that takes the best bits out of some of the more successful European models and tailors it to play to the strengths of the UK.

Instead, we get a new minister take over and immediately the strategy gets ripped up and a new blueprint for the future emerges. Call me an old cynic, but haven’t we been here before? I’m sure this will probably last a few years, before the next flavour of the month appears.

For many business owners and managers, we’ve never fully replaced the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), another questionable decision by the Government. This programme understood SMEs and what we needed, thanks mainly to the army of former industry experts they had on the ground. Importantly, they also had some tangible funding to support business improvement.

The Manufacturing Growth Programme has filled some of the void, but we could really do with more of the assistance filtering its way down to the small to medium-sized enterprises.

There always seem to be a focus on keeping the blue chip organisations happy and to a certain degree I get that…we need those at the top to be successful, so it generates work in the supply chain. However, the balance of power has swung a little as the march towards electrification is proving that the OEMs will be just as reliant on accessing suppliers who can make the component parts required for future technologies, particularly in transportation.

The Super-Deduction Tax Relief was a welcome announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget and could encourage investment in new machinery, but I feel all of industry would appreciate grants that go towards capital equipment and not just consultancy.

Going Digital

Embracing the digital revolution will be the biggest challenge/opportunity facing SME manufacturers over the next few years.

The move to real-time data, product lifecycle management systems, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and automation will become a necessity for all tiers of the chain.

Government needs to try to find a way of promoting the clear business use cases for digital manufacturing and potentially setting up more initiatives like Made Smarter to work with companies to understand the opportunities and overcome the barriers.

We need to realise that it’s not a £multi-million expense at a time when cashflow is tight and that implementation can unlock production bottlenecks, improve output, save costs through predictive maintenance – even use Augmented Reality to protect valuable craft skills that could be lost forever with an ageing workforce.

It’s a mindset shift for manufacturers and one we can take with a little bit of help.

Funding for technical apprenticeships and graduates

If we are serious about re-establishing our manufacturing base, we need to start developing our young people, so they understand that there are a multitude of career opportunities in industry.

The emphasis again, seems to focus on placements for blue chip manufacturing, leaving SMEs to sort themselves out.

Admittedly, we can do our bit by promoting the opportunities we have and establishing better relationships with academia, in order to influence pupils at the earliest possible opportunity.

Apprenticeship/graduate funding is still not working for many SMEs. I’d like to see a different approach where we attempt to bridge the gap between industry and schools, with a more simple and attractive funding package in place for companies willing to invest in the talent of the future.

Government, unfortunately, don’t see the hidden cost of losing staff for so many days per week or using experienced employees to help with training. There has to be a better appreciation of that to ensure wider involvement.

Manufacturers don’t want handouts, we’d just like a bit more targeted support, for Government to listen to on-the-ground challenges and put in place a coherent strategy that lasts longer than the whim of any given Minister or Whitehall department. Not too much to ask is it?

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