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Prime time manufacturing

Following Alan Sugar’s now-infamous dig at engineers, the BBC was back on more industry-friendly ground this week with the first episode of “Made In Britain”, a documentary which attempted to debunk the notion that British manufacturing is dead.

This week, the show’s host, Evan Davis, turned his attention to high-value manufacturing, and the sectors of industry where the UK continues to boast world-leading skills and expertise.

The Mclaren MP4-12C

The Mclaren MP4-12C

It was generally watchable stuff, and although there was nothing much to surprise Engineer readers, it’s certainly plausible that many of the technologies featured - from Mclaren’s MP4-12C sports car to BAE’s Mantis UAV - would confound the expectations of non-specialist viewers convinced that the UK no longer makes anything.

Davis was inevitably stronger on analysis than he was on technology, and his comments on how foreign ownership has helped British carmakers embrace once unthought-of of levels of sophistication provided an intelligent rebuff to the still widely-held notion that foreign ownership is undesirable. Meanwhile, Will Butler-Adams, managing director of Britain’s largest bike manufacturer, Brompton, suggested that China far from being seen as threat to the UK’s manufacturing base should be viewed as an emerging customer.

For all the industry drum banging there were also some pertinent warnings. Despite being the world’s seventh largest manufacturer, Davis explained that the UK’s exports still don’t pay for its imports and that if manufacturing is really going to drive the economy we’re going to need hundreds more examples of the kind of companies featured.

But as the programme sought to capture the full sweep of the UK’s advanced manufacturing industry there were some glaring omissions.

Airbus A350 XWB

Airbus A350 XWB

Rolls Royce, the world’s second largest manufacturer of aircraft jet engines didn’t get a mention, neither did the composite expertise of the likes of Airbus and GKN, and the UK’s buoyant space sector - a world-leading manufacturer of satellites - was also left out in the cold. Away from the aerospace sector, the UK’s much vaunted potential as a renewable energy manufacturer was notable by its absence, and Britain’s burgeoning low carbon vehicle sector was similarly overlooked. Assiduous readers will no doubt spot other examples.

It’s perhaps inevitable that anyone immersed in the UK technology industry will pick holes in the programme, but to be fair on its makers it was always going to be impossible to squeeze a detailed overview of UK manufacturing into a one hour programme. Ultimately, despite its shortcomings, “Made in Britain” was a valuable addition to the public debate over Britain’s industrial future and a welcome televisual fillip for an industry still seething over Lord Sugar’s ill-considered put-down.

Readers' comments (11)

  • Err, it was only episode 1 of 3, give Evan Davis a chance to recover from the MP4-12C and Eurofighter rides and he might be able to recall Rolls Royce et. al! It made poignant viewing!

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  • I thought it was an excellent programme with much thought provoking content. I only hope both politicians and educators were watching. Highlighting our skills and achievements to both these groups, even allowing for the glaring omissions highlighted above, can do much to raise awareness of the contributions made by engineers

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  • 'Thought this first programme in the series was promising. There's not much Engineering/Tech. fare on the TV currently so this was welcome! Evan Davis has an economists view of the sector but still managed to keep it entertaining and relevant. There was almost a reassuring feeling that all is not lost in the area of UK manufacturing. I look forward to the coming programmes.

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  • I would like to applaud the program - it was in my view a level argument for advanced products and associated manufacturing and the advantages it brings the country.

    As your article points out there are many examples that could not be included.

    My concern however as a young ambitious company with an advanced product in our market sector, small high efficiency speedboats using catamaran, hydrofoil and air entrapment technology -

    After 7 very hard years of self financed development we are getting noticed globally by leisure, military and commercial sectors. We are now launching the product and being very well received.

    We expect that our business will end up being 95% export in the future. Exactly what the country needs.

    But who is helping us - we have found some very loyal small investors - family friends and fools the VC'c call them who have invested in us rather than earn 1% in a bank account.

    But no one takes the small company seriously in the UK unless they are a spin out from a University.

    There are a lot of small companies in the UK with great ideas and in a similar position to ourselves - they need help.

    The best quote I ever heard:

    "An overnight sensation takes years to create". Steve Jobs Apple co-founder, he should know.

    In the UK we are only interested in the next 5 minutes stock price, we just don't understand that building the foundations to support long term growth of companies like ours takes courage.

    I haven't seen any evidence that politicians can grasp that.

    In anything design and engineering based it takes a long time for a company to find it's stride, even if only 1 in 10 does that would help.

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  • Just consider your suggestions good for the next episodes ;-)

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  • Unfortunately there will be many more viewers of Lord Sugar and his comments. The 'Appentice' is BBC prime time viewing; 'Made in Britain' still has to attract the viewing public.
    Is it still true that there is no such thing as bad publicity?

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  • Strong analysis, as you'd expect from Evan Davis. It's a shame he doesn't concentrate on this type of broadcasting instead of working with those ghastly self-centred salesmen on Dragons' Den, which portraits the worst elements of British Innovation. It's a welcome change.

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  • When I was studying engineering in the late 80s, I remember the case studies of the first Japanese companies that came to South Wales to make televisions.

    One of the local suppliers complained that Sony was rejecting cases because they had scratches on them. "No of our other customers complain - why do they?" was the quote I remember.

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  • Good program, but long overdue. Im wondering if they'll mention the skills gap problem we have. That's going to cost to put right. IMHO making things is vital to progress in furthering engineering development and new knowledge. The theory does not tell us everything. I have most ideas for something new whilst building or repairing something. Perhaps that's because im not purely an acaedemic?

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  • As a manufacturer and son of an enginer I would ask where would we be had we not cut back on enginers -apprenticeships under - was it thatchers government? and it's easy to blame wages re manufacturing problems but I wonder at what costs far east governments provide rent,taxes,utilities, finance,insurance,etc etc it's not just wages that make manufacturing hard here!

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