Manufacturing became the ‘Cinderella sector’ of the UK economy in the latter half of the 20th Century. Cheaper labour costs in China and other far-east countries led to a UK focus on brains rather than hands. “Let’s do the higher paid creative design stuff and leave the job of making products to other people” seemed to be the ethos.
How times change!
The economic crash; increasing labour costs in Asia and new digital-led technologies have demanded a belated re-evaluation of our priorities. We now know that manufacturing exports are playing a critical role in our slow economic recovery.
Greater Manchester may not have many of the large manufacturers any more – Henry Ford’s first factory in Europe and the Rolls Royce aircraft engine factories at Trafford Park have long since gone – but we still have a significant manufacturing base with over 100,000 people employed in 6,000 businesses which include global players such as Kellogg’s, Thales and Renold. Manufacturing is also one of the most productive sectors in Greater Manchester (GM) and the GM Forecasting Model, produced by Oxford Economics, forecasts that it will grow from an estimated £6.7bn now to over £10bn by 2027.
Mostly, however, we are now a city-region of small diverse manufacturing and engineering businesses, with fingers in many global supply chains including aerospace (where we have 30% of the North West supply chain), automotive, oil and gas and nuclear. We also have a more nimble business base where the average sized business is now only 18 employees.
This base is superbly placed to take advantage of an incredible cocktail of world leading research in new materials. Looking ahead, the sector will see the National Graphene Institute open in Manchester this year; its complementary Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre will be completed in 2017 and the recently announced Sir Henry Royce Institute for Materials Research and Innovation will also eventually add to the mix. All of these tie into the strengths that many of our manufacturers already have in the development and manufacture of materials and composites. Still, this is only part of the foundation upon which a new era for our manufacturing businesses can be built.
Greater Manchester also has one of the largest community of digital companies in Europe. Our substantial skills base in digital technologies means that our manufacturers have access to the talent needed to exploit the convergence of digital into the manufacturing services and production. Over half of our manufacturing jobs are now involved in delivering services. Production processes are becoming more personalised (through new 3D printing and additive technologies), more timely, more local and more monitored – with new sensor technologies enabling remote performance tracking.
Our biggest challenge now is to translate this fantastic knowledge and assets into genuine opportunities for our manufacturers.
This has been recognised by our Local Enterprise Partnership, which has key manufacturing leaders from Siemens, Man Diesel and Turbo who, working in partnership New Economy, have led the development of the Greater Manchester Manufacturing Strategy. The result is clear deliverable recommendations aimed at encouraging more young people into the sector; providing targeted business support and creating a positive environment which is more conducive to innovation and collaboration.
Working in the profession has never been more exciting. But we know that we need to address the negative perceptions about manufacturing that have led to a lost generation of UK engineers. We also know there is a need to educate parents as well as teachers and young people about the opportunities and high level salaries in manufacturing.
Here in Greater Manchester an initiative called Engineering Futures, led by Trafford & Tameside College and Skills Solutions, is now developing a programme in schools to promote the opportunities of careers in engineering. The STEM ambassador programme being delivered by the Museum of Science and Industry is also working with Greater Manchester schools.
It is clear that the future of manufacturing depends upon both the brains and hands of our talented young people. We’re now making sure that Manchester’s young people get all the resources they need to ensure a booming future.
Manchester is considered to be world’s first industrialised city built on local innovation – it now has the opportunity to be a world centre for advanced material development and commercialisation which takes advantage of our digital technology strengths. Watch this space!
John Steward, project development principal, New Economy