With Manufacturing growing more quickly than at any point for 16 years and exports healthier than they’ve been since 1994 UK industry is currently suffused with something approaching cautious optimism.
This was certainly the feeling in London yesterday as a full-house of industrialists, MPs and journalists gathered for the official launch of the Global Manufacturing festival: a week long series of events to be held in Sheffield this March.
The event has some highly laudable aims: raising public awareness of the UK’s manufacturing sector, helping bridge the gap between research and commercialisation and talking up some of the opportunities for the UK’s technology and engineering sector.
But for all the opportunities – and let’s be clear, the UK has expertise in a range of emerging technology sectors – it was perhaps the spectre of missed opportunities that provided the biggest pause for thought.
For instance, one of the speakers, EDF’s procurement manager Chris Squires talked about the opportunities the new nuclear build program will create for UK engineering firms. And undoubtedly it will. But at an event designed to put Sheffield at the heart of this manufacturing renaissance, the cancelled Forgemasters loan, and the missed opportunity that represents, was something of an elephant in the room.
It was an issue that another of the speakers Mark Prisk, minister for business and enterprise, sidestepped as he expanded on the opportunities for UK firms and talked of the need to grow our manufacturing sector.
But again, as he did so, it was hard not to reflect on the morning’s news that Cambridge University spin-out Plastic Logic is to open the world’s largest plastic electronics factory in Russia.
Plastic electronics has long been talked up as a sector where the UK could lead the world. That we may have now lost this edge to Russia is another reminder that to convert opportunities into bona-fide sectors, government and private investors must act swiftly.
More promisingly, it now appears that a further twist in the Forgemasters saga may be imminent, with a report in the Sheffield Star claiming that the funding for a 15,000 tonne forging press may now be granted through the £1.5 billion Future jobs fund.
One “Manufacturing Festival” delegate pointed to rumours that the announcement could be made in March by Nick Clegg. While the money would certainly be welcome, our Sheffield-based source suggested its unlikely that such a move will win back the affections of his Sheffield constituents.