Manufacturing in the UK has a definite Cinderella complex.
Having been the original Belle of the Ball from the Victoria era, and the powerhouse that built the armaments for two world wars, UK manufacturing went into decline.
Today, there are large portions of our population who do not believe manufacturing even exists. There are politicians who say we are a service-based economy and that the sun shines out of the City of London’s fundament.
And many in manufacturing feel aggrieved by that. Count me among them.
But let us not allow that sense of grievance to blind us to some of the issues that must be confronted.
Our decline as a sector was down to a mixture of complacency, muddled government policy, under-investment and – ultimately – a failure to understand that the world of manufacturing was changing.
Other countries’ industrial sectors saw the opportunities presented by computing and robotics. The UK lagged behind. Indeed, in terms of robotics, we still do.
Today it is digital manufacturing technologies grabbing the headlines, and we must not allow ourselves to get behind the curve again.
There are positive signs that, through government-funded programmes like Made Smarter and through the availability of low-cost entry-level digital systems, UK manufacturing is up for the investment challenge.
But now Covid-19 has sideswiped many manufacturers. They are in peril from dislocated supply chains disrupting production schedules, customers cancelling orders, cash flow down to a trickle, wages bills that were once affordable but now look ominous. And if they rely on anything that depends on input, or custom, from the EU, they face continued uncertainty over Brexit.
There is an argument – and you see it all the time on social media – for us to pound a relentlessly positive drum for UK manufacturing. It is an argument I share: we need to shout about the truly brilliant companies who are innovating and investing even during these difficult times.
But this argument tends to go hand-in-hand with “Ignore the gloom and doom from mainstream media”. As if not mentioning will make it go away.
Of course, the “MSM” report bad news, and are blind to what’s great about manufacturing, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the very real difficulties that threaten our sector. To do so is to put at risk those who have not been able to invest or innovate and whose very existence is in peril.
We must fight, as a sector, for the preservation of as much of our manufacturing base as possible, and that means getting the message through to government that support mechanisms must continue until stability begins to return.
I am not a sentimentalist. I know some companies don’t deserve to survive because they have not been listening to the drumbeat argument for change in recent years. But now is not the time to sit in judgement on that.
The post-Covid era (if it will ever truly be a thing of the past) offers incredible opportunities for those companies who have the vision – and those all-important digital technologies – to create a new story for UK manufacturing.
Indeed, the nation actually needs manufacturing more than ever, to create added-value products to sell abroad and pay our bills. Services can’t do it all, and the City is itself in threat of post-Brexit disruption and maybe decline.
Arguably, we are on the brink of a manufacturing renaissance.
But we have to weather this storm first.
And we have to be clear minded about the peril we’re in and work together to overcome it.
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