SME manufacturers are looking for productivity gains from their workforce and existing equipment ahead of investment in automation, according to the latest National Manufacturing Barometer survey.
The quarterly survey asked over 280 manufacturers how they plan to increase their business’ productivity, with 43 per cent saying they will invest in new equipment and only 40 per cent planning to recruit to meet future sales increases, which look set to continue.
A total of 61 per cent of firms reported an increase in sales over the last six months, whilst 59 per cent are confident this trend will continue.
A further 47 per cent of respondents said they expected profits to grow in the next six months, while 41 per cent have seen profits increase over the last six months.
Manufacturing has proved relatively buoyant in recent years despite economists’ warnings that the UK’s productivity continues to lag behind its major trading partners such as the US, France and Germany.
With the impact of Brexit further underlining the importance of efficiency, the government’s industrial strategy for addressing the UK’s ‘productivity puzzle’ has increasingly looked to robotics and automation to boost productivity levels.
However, when asked how they would most like to improve productivity, most respondents to the National Manufacturing Barometer said they are prioritising smarter working practices and better utilisation of existing equipment over new equipment or automation.
The barometer is conducted by SWMAS (part of Exelin Group) in partnership with Economic Growth Solutions (EGS).
Simon Howes, CEO of Exelin Group, said: “This survey demonstrates that the country’s SME manufacturing sector is as robust and adaptable as ever with profits and sales continuing to increase, despite market uncertainties.
“Manufacturers clearly understand the need to improve productivity. However, with much in the news about automation and robotics, it may come as a surprise to policy makers that for many businesses the first priority is to optimise existing resources.
“The upshot is a call to action for government and support bodies to provide resources and a focus on helping manufacturers realise their existing potential and work smarter now. Getting this right will help make the case for investment in robotics and automation, which is vital if the UK is to remain competitive in the mid to long term.”
Karen Friendship, managing director at Plymouth-based metal fabricator Aldermans, added: “Automation is key for us, but the more immediate priority focus should be our people. It’s a quicker win. Unless we have people who are capable of making observations and taking any subsequent decisions, we lose the capacity to be productive.”