With the UK’s manufacturing future looking more uncertain than ever, this might seem like an unlikely time for optimism, but we might be able to capitalise on one benefit of the current mess – the reduced value of the pound. Cheaper exports have to be a good thing for British products, particularly if they have high local content in terms of materials and components.
But does British manufacturing even matter these days – isn’t it in terminal decline? Not according to the EEF, which claims that it still:
· employs 2.6 million people
· contributes 10% of GVA
· accounts for 44% of total exports
· represents 69% of business research and development (R&D), and
· provides 15% of business investment.
Nor is all of this down to globalised giants like Nissan, JLR and BMW/Mini. A large proportion of UK manufacturing is carried out on small industrial estates up and down the country, often in low volumes for specialised markets. Scientific instruments, industrial tools, analytical equipment, medical devices, luxury consumer goods and many other products are still a central part of the manufacturing economy. They’re just not as noticeable as large car plants.
The drop in the value of the pound will clearly not benefit all manufacturers. Whilst companies who import parts or products in dollars and sell in sterling are clearly suffering, those who manufacture in the UK have an opportunity to grow, and they can be helped by new design and production technologies.
Many of the recent developments in production technologies have come at just the right time for specialist manufacturing companies, and this is not just in the field of 3D printing. New techniques in sheet metal, plastic forming and CNC machining, to name but a few, are also perfectly suited to high value, low volume production, and offer higher quality and more design freedom. The days when specialist manufacturers had to put their high tech solutions in boring boxes are well and truly over. The challenge now is for manufacturers to look outside the traditional production methods that they have used for years. They need to experiment with new techniques that potentially offer lower costs, more design flexibility, and even the possibility of developing entirely new products based on existing expertise.
Many specialist manufacturing companies in the UK have always had an ambivalent attitude to design, often preferring to focus on specification and product function. As one of our clients said recently, the Internet has changed all that. Viewing products online allows everything to be compared, from technical performance to appearance, and the way something looks has become more important, even in industrial markets. As with manufacturing, new techniques in design and prototyping are making the whole process of developing new products easier and quicker. 3D CAD modelling is now commonplace, and realistic rendering and animation is close behind. Desktop 3D printers are allowing designers and engineers to produce test parts in hours rather than weeks, thereby reducing costs and improving the quality of the final product.
The combination of low cost design and prototyping tools with advanced manufacturing methods optimised for specialist manufacture provide a real opportunity to companies in the UK who want to innovate and grow. With our competitive position improved by the reduction in the value of sterling, there has never been a better time to grow our manufacturing economy with great design and cutting edge production technology.