Point of View

John Moon, chief executive of management consultant Strategem

More and more companies in the UK are looking outside this country for suppliers of press and mould-making tools. Taken to its logical conclusion, this trend will eventually see companies looking to source the components manufactured by the tools from outside the UK as well.

There are several reasons for the downward trend in UK tool design and manufacture.

First, the UK market is strongly influenced by an increasing number of inward-investing multinationals, which although choosing to establish operations in this country, remain committed to a global approach to product design and development. They compete on a global scale and under global pressures and when it comes to the sourcing of tooling they have no loyalty to a local supply base.

This is compounded by the lack of skills in the UK industry which manifests itself in a shortage of skilled toolmakers and, crucially, of tool designers.

The root of the problem lies with the many large companies that are no longer prepared to invest in in-house toolrooms and the skilled personnel to operate them, coupled with press and mould toolmakers reluctant to take on apprentices for fear of subsequent poaching by competitors. This spiral has forced up wage rates in the industry and led to some loss of competitiveness.

We have also seen the impact new technologies have had on the industry, not least because of increased complexity of tool design. Here new skills are required – notably the ability to move from product design software to tool design, or to convert from CAD to CAM.

The facilities equipped for these skills are still not readily available in the UK. Few toolmakers can operate in 3D CAD – some are able to work in 2D – and many continue with the traditional drawing board approach.

The third reason why the UK toolmaking industry struggles to compete is long delivery lead times. UK toolmakers still quote lead times of 8-16 weeks, while overseas competitors quote 2-10 weeks, including shipping. This is an emotive subject but a key determinant in deciding where to source from.

Perhaps the most illuminating comparison is with the Irish Republic where the approach to tool design and manufacturing skills is different.

At any one time in Ireland there are more than 200 toolmakers in the training system. The UK numbers are small and compounded by a lack of facilities.

The Irish toolmaking philosophy is based on the principle that you train to the highest level which equips people for a wider variety of jobs. Toolmaker training in Ireland takes place mainly at the Regional Technical College, a £4m purpose-built centre in Sligo.

The college, with the support of European Commission funding, has established a centre of excellence in toolmaking design and development, which takes on the country’s best toolmaking apprentices and provides access to the most modern equipment and training facilities.

Qualified students from the centre have gone on to find work in many leading industries, such as electronics and automotive, throughout the world.

In addition, a number of new press and mould-making companies have been established, helping industry to continue to flourish in Ireland. The irony for the UK is that many of these Irish toolmaking companies rely on exporting their capabilities to sustain growth, and are supplying tooling to organisations in Britain.

It is time Government and industry support bodies woke up to the toolmaker training problem. They need to encourage toolmakers to take on more apprentices and to work with local colleges to develop and align training with the needs of the industry beyond the millennium.