When the scale of the challenges faced by the NHS became apparent in March, we – like many others – used our 3D printer to make face mask frames. In truth, it was a token gesture, and other projects to modify the designs to make them suitable for rapid tooling and moulding were of far more value.
In the weeks that followed, the UK expected supplies of basic kit from China, Turkey and several other countries. Much of this was late, and some of it turned out to be useless. Many individuals and companies in the UK made heroic efforts to meet the demand for vital medical and protective equipment, but our dependency on imports underlined the weakness of our manufacturing base.
One of the few positive things to have come from the pandemic is the renewed value of everything local – from corner shops to community groups. As we continue to deal with the health crisis and begin to see the size of the economic one that will follow it, we need to see manufacturing in a similar light. Maybe it is finally time for George Osbourne’s ‘March of the Makers’, and for manufacturing to become a positive and growing part of the UK economy, providing worthwhile employment, sustainable products and essential goods and equipment.
This is not about pseudo-nationalistic ‘Buy British’ marketing campaigns. It is about investing our considerable technical and commercial expertise in developing new - and urgently needed - globally competitive manufacturing programmes. It is possible that one of the very few benefits of leaving the EU may turn out to be greater freedom to support our own industries – if we choose to do so. The Labour proposals to develop new industries aimed at renewable energy and waste reduction are a good example of how this could work. They propose a radical new approach towards rebalancing the economy, creating jobs where they are desperately needed and making the UK a global leader in challenging climate change. The UK is going to need this ambitious level of response if it is to rebuild following the double whammy of Brexit and the severe impact of the pandemic.
It will also require us to take a long, hard look at where things are made and the commercial drivers that have resulted in successful UK companies opening plants in lower wage economies. Of course it is more profitable to make high value electronic products in Asia, but at what cost to our social and political stability? The success of plants like the Nissan factory in Sunderland have shown that we have the skills and approach to manufacture profitably in the UK, but we need our entrepreneurs to deliver commercial models that prioritise the social good a little more and their shareholders a little less.
So, what can product design do about it? Well, our response is fairly simple. From now on, we will give a 25% fee discount to any project that commits to UK manufacture of the new product we design, and a 50% discount if that project also involves renewable energy or waste reduction. We are one, very small design consultancy, and this may turn out to be another token gesture, but it is a sincere one.
There is a desperate need to combine UK innovation and technology capabilities with a new approach to local manufacture if we are to meet the challenges of the next decade.