Prime time manufacturing

The Engineer

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.