Manufacturing still matters

Rising factory output and the presence of world-class producers belie the fashionable belief that British manufacturing is on its way out, argues Robin Daniels

British manufacturing industry is growing, and getting stronger within the global market. Factory output is rising, our top businesses are winning significant overseas contracts and inward investment in the UK is the highest in Europe. How’s that for a breath of fresh air?

Almost every newspaper or magazine article, television or radio report over the past five years has predicted the imminent demise of UK manufacturing industry.

In 1996, Will Hutton commented in his book The State We’re In: `The new intellectual and political consensus is that manufacturing no longer matters.’ I for one am not surprised at this attitude. Left to almost anyone outside manufacturing this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Manufacturing industry must find its voice and put its case if it is ever to attract the 16-year-old and the City investor.

Manufacturing in the UK still employs over four million people and provides the foundation for the growing service sector. Careers can be as exciting, dynamic and rewarding as those in any other area.

Hidden in the plants of the multinationals, the factories of the small and medium-sized companies and the laboratories of the high-tech start-up firms there is an excitement. An excitement about the genesis of new ideas and about the creation of products from those ideas and their delivery into the global market.

It is true that the profile of manufacturing industry has changed. But out of the smoke of the old, dark, satanic mills have risen the likes of Mayflower and Dyson.

Old familiar names have been reborn under dynamic and successful leaders: Triumph motorcycles, for example. And our greatest companies are reforming, regrouping and winning market share around the world: GKN, Rolls-Royce, Corus, British Aerospace and ICI to name but a few.

Some overseas companies are faring less well, however. Most recently the Nissan/Renault restructuring brought closure plans to three of its large factories in Japan. Not so for the Nissan plant in Sunderland, which is the most productive car plant in Europe.

The UK is the location of choice for many of the world’s premier manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Unilever and Invensys. Such organisations see through the rhetoric of the doom-mongers and into a rich and vibrant sector where opportunities abound for the young engineer with the conviction to lead from the front.

Anyone who doubts the viability of UK industry need look no further than the undergraduate manufacturing or postgraduate leadership classes here in Cambridge. The brightest and best of our young engineers recognise the vitality and excitement of a sector which was born here hundreds of years ago and continues to develop as we move into the next millennium.

Delegates on the Manufacturing Leaders Programme embody some of the creativity, talent and enthusiasm that would invigorate even the most fanatical promoter of the service sector.

However, these – we take just 20 a year – are the fortunate ones. They have recognised the possibilities and will undoubtedly go on to realise them. Those who have not yet decided on a career must be made aware of the opportunities that manufacturing presents. Indeed the message must be heard first in the schools, where early misperceptions of what industry is all about all too often originate.

From today’s 16-year-olds must come the ranks of engineers, technicians, technologists and executives necessary to ensure success and a sustainable place for the UK within global manufacturing.

With the latest figures showing UK industrial output up, confidence in the sector is growing and with it the certainty that manufacturing in this country is here to stay.

Robin Daniels is deputy director of the Manufacturing Leaders Programme at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge