The future of manufacturing in the UK

13 March 2013

As the UK government contemplates our future EU membership they’re ignoring that many global engineering firms opt to set-up in the UK to sell into Europe. This got Martyn Day worrying about the future of manufacturing in the UK

Remember the Industrial Revolution. OK, maybe that’s in none of our collective memories, but it’s great to think that it happened here in the UK; we actually did that. We invented steam engines, power mills, locomotives and ships.

Mechanical ingenuity combined with investment transformed mass manufacturing and consumption and then we exported it to all those countries that we um, er, Anglicised. 

Somewhere between then and now we managed to lose a lot of that engineering knowledge and capability to lower-cost emerging countries. America, the country that kicked us out foolishly before we built them a decent public rail network, has also garrotted its manufacturing base for the need for increased profitability.

Turkey, India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Brazil have all been the recipients of offshore manufacturing.

This is great until you eventually run out of poor people willing to work 20 hour days for a piece of string. You might have noticed things have sort of changed since 2007. It seems we have managed to import ‘being poorer’ while at the same time Asian and South American living standards have risen, as have their aspirations – the financial benefits are changing.


Meanwhile products are increasing in complexity, firms are adding up the hidden costs and import duties, fuel is expensive - you need a banker’s bonus to fill your car and it just takes too damn long to get products from Asia to Baltimore.

The resulting trend appears to be a slow but increasing retrenchment of fabrication facilities nearer to home.  This is certainly being seen in America, with companies like Caterpillar and even Apple talking of setting up limited production lines back on native soil.

Now, some of this may be company publicity in difficult times, with a minimal commitment but it’s something that we can take some heart from. At the very least, ‘near shoring’ is attracting manufacturing firms – so there is hope for Anglesey yet.

However, this really should be helped or incentivised now, before all the people here with relevant manufacturing experience are pensioned off. The number of new students doing engineering or anything vaguely useful is still shockingly low.

Hopefully business studies students watch the news and will realise the significant error of their ways and will figure out that their big job in retail is not looking too bright. As for banking, even those gamble-aholics are recruiting less trainee robbers these days.

Robots, who don’t need paying or workers’ rights, are starting to show up more frequently at work — well they would, they never go home!

Could engineering be suddenly more interesting? With all the hullabaloo around 3D printing, crowd-funding and a society that now highly prizes good design, surely we will see an uptick in interest in making cool stuff?

Whatever we do, we are currently suffering a skills shortage in the UK and recently Sir James Dyson went on the offensive stating that nine out ten graduates were leaving the UK to work abroad after finishing their studies and criticised the government’s fixation with the games industry, shifting the focus away from engineering and science vocations.


In the States there’s the Maker movement, where it’s seen as cool to learn crafts, design and manufacturing skills to produce one off ideas. Kickstarter provides access to crowd sourced funding and companies such as Techshop have communities of makers pay to use their amazing workshop facilities.

The UK has a huge potential for this and Kickstarter is now open to UK makers but the workshops (sometimes called hacker spaces) are not as well equipped and the on-site expertise is also not as abundant. 

The government needs to look at this opportunity now and start funding spaces where kids can learn to design, make and master technologies such as 3D printing.

Rise of the robots

Yes, I know there is more to design than having access to a 3D printer but the increased competence in robotics and the drop in price of robots, combined with new automated production methods is at last making the mechatronix vision of 20 years ago a reality.

Robots, who don’t need paying or workers’ rights, are starting to show up more frequently at work — well they would, they never go home!

So, labour force reasons for moving production to some far flung nation are less compelling and the reasons to bring manufacturing nearer to home are getting stronger all the time as those economies overheat and the populations demand more and higher standards of living.

The end of manpower

The whole of the last 20 years has seen low-cost manpower transform where products have been fabricated. Looking long term, this will no longer be a business motivation as machine-based manufacturing will become the norm. Governments need to think about how they incentivise firms to be located in their territories. I think we do this by developing local design talent and that takes decades. We need to start now.


So, in these confusing deficit burdened times with banks that have no money, governments that say they are reducing debt but increasing borrowing, maybe, just maybe, the scales are tipping to a time when we can envisage having a second industrial revolution, where original ideas, product quality and distance to market override the shrinking benefits of manufacturing in distant lands with cheap and plentiful labour forces. 

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