Revitalise UK manufacturing image for sector success, shows research

Beverley NielsenExperts are urging the Government to address the outdated and enduring negative perceptions of the UK manufacturing industry.

Widely perceived as a sunset industry in perpetual decline, plagued by plant closures, off-shoring and frequent negative media coverage, the need to revitalise UK manufacturing is paramount to UK economic success, says the latest Institute for Policy Research (IPR) policy brief to be issued by the University of Bath on Tuesday 19 May.

The UK now produces more manufactured goods than ever before and the maker economy, which includes creative sector, industrial design, a renewed interest in craft, 3D printing, and the manufacture of digital mobile applications, among others, is at an all-time high.

To achieve George Osborne’s ‘March of the Makers’, UK manufacturing needs to acknowledge the importance of the creative sector. Setting manufacturing within the making economy would revitalise its poor image among potential employees, investors, policy makers, and other important stakeholders such as school careers advisors, school leavers, and parents.

The Policy Brief recommends capitalising on the UK’s manufacturing heritage by creating ‘hubs’ that connect manufacturers within regions, across industry and with schools, colleges and universities, to share expertise and to generate new ideas and talent to enable manufacturing success.

It also calls on policy makers to recognise that the sector’s success depends not only on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) but on creative arts, including market-oriented design, business studies and social science in order to sustain a highly skilled UK manufacturing future workforce.

The culture and heritage of the UK’s traditional industrial regions often remains untapped, but research partner Beverley Nielsen, Corporate Affairs Director at Birmingham City University, describes how smaller heritage-driven firms are nevertheless providing a positive halo around ‘Made in the UK’ that larger organisations are able to tap into and bringing to bear a complex combination of skills including crafts, digital capabilities, new technologies and materials and an increasing awareness of the need to focus on user-driven design.

She said: “The impact of these businesses on the reputation of our regions has been too often overlooked. It should be pro-actively supported and nurtured through the development and better articulation of ‘mind to market’ strategies by building entrepreneurial and connected regional ecosystems, drawing on longer term strategies agreed by all local partners, enabling linkages and relationships to be established between sources of knowledge and expertise and delivering increasing speed of innovation leading to new product and service development.”

The research is published more fully in Redesigning Manufacturing: Reimagining the business of Making in the UK. The findings of the book are based on multiple research projects, including case studies of leading Midlands’ manufacturers, manufacturing firms within the rest of the UK and around the world, and a critical review of existing literature.

Beverley Nielsen, as a research partner for this book, has collaborated with Professor Michael Beverland, Director of the School of Management’s Centre for Research in Advertising & Consumption at the University of Bath and Professor Vicky Pryce, Chief Economic Adviser at the Centre for Economics and Business Research and Visiting Professor, Birmingham City University.

Professor Vicky Pryce said: “Since the beginning of the financial crisis the talk has been of re-balancing the economy away from the financial sector and away from London and focussing on exports. A stronger manufacturing sector is essential in that.

“Manufacturing takes place anywhere where there are skills available, encourages supply chains to develop around it, creates numerous additional jobs both directly and indirectly, is on average more productive than many other sectors of the economy and more of its output tends to be exported. Its importance cannot be over stated.

“While there is no ‘right’ share of GDP for manufacturing to necessarily aim for, a country the size of the UK being almost entirely based on services is not a sustainable proposition and would limit growth opportunities.”

Professor Michael Beverland, who led the research, commented: “Enduring perceptions of manufacturing as a factory production line plagued by plant closures and media headlines that frame it as a sunset industry in perpetual decline have led to a poor public image which is based more in myth than reality.

“Advocates for the sector need to reframe their messages around manufacturing’s positives, including the diverse range of employment opportunities, enduring success, powerful brands, sustained export performance and high value added products.

“We need new government policies to ensure that manufacturing can maintain and build on its success and to enable the 800,000 new employees needed in the sector by 2020.”