Today is my last day at EEF after nearly six years, so I’m marking the occasion with this blog, taking a look at some of the things I’ve learnt while I’ve been here.
I’ve learnt that we don’t make (just) anything in the UK
First off. We really do make things here. The UK is one of the world’s top ten of global manufacturing nations. But we don’t make just anything, and we don’t make it any which way. UK manufacturers are extremely innovative: 96% of them engaged in innovation in the last three years. Many operate in specific niches or develop highly customised goods for their customers’ specific needs.
UK manufacturers have a long history of innovation. For example, did you know that the first man-made commercial plastic was developed in the UK by Alexander Parkes? I didn’t before I worked here. The UK continues to push the boundaries of materials manufacturing, with places like the National Composites Centre, and the companies that work with them, right at the forefront of technology developments.
I’ve learnt that we make lots of different things – and things you don’t always expect
‘Manufacturing’ is far from being one big homogenous blob. At EEF we take a deeper look at what’s happening in fourteen manufacturing sub-sectors all of which have different histories and different outlooks.
For example, while many people might automatically think of car-making or aerospace when they think of manufacturing, that’s far from the whole picture. In fact, the biggest manufacturing sector is food and drink. We also make fabrics and building materials and wholly new materials. We make electronic components and contact lenses and prosthetics. We make turbine blades and helicopter blades. I’ve had the pleasure to visit factories around the country making many of these things, and more.
I’ve learnt what a five-axis milling machine is
On my second day at EEF I visited a member company and I was on strict instructions that I should come back knowing what a five-axis milling machine is. I did, it’s this:
Or more informatively, it’s a computer-aided machine which has the ability to mill a part or move a tool on five different axes at the same time (this saves time and increases accuracy compared with a machine that operates on fewer axes). It’s pretty cool. It allows manufacturers to make complex objects like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZOiNdkJ8SU
In fact, while I’ve been here I’ve learnt about the many different and complex machines that manufacturers invest in, and just how quickly technology moves. We’re now on the cusp of a new Industrial Revolution, which offers huge opportunities for manufacturing, but it also requires large scale investment.
Manufacturers have to invest – and keep investing in – capital equipment to keep up with the competition and ensure their processes are at the cutting edge. Manufacturers are ambitious about investing to grow their businesses but a range of issues – such as concerns over the certainty of the business environment; global economic uncertainty; a lack of internal cashflow or insufficient access to external finance – can hold them back. Policy has a role to play here, ensuring businesses can access the finance they need, and a supportive tax environment.
I’ve learnt that manufacturers do more than make things
Just as manufacturing is a diverse sector, manufacturers play many roles. Many manufacturers provide services in addition to their products. Our recent Innovation Monitor survey found that nearly a quarter of manufacturers engaged in service innovation in the past three years.
This can be a great way to add value for customers and help ensure they get the best out of a manufacturer's products. Services can help customers use a manufacturer's products more effectively or prolong the useful life of a product. One story I found particularly interesting was from a member company who found that developing services in addition to his products had helped him move into Middle Eastern markets, where relationship-based business is especially important.
I’ve learnt that manufacturing is resilient
In my time at EEF manufacturing has had its fair share of ups and downs. When I joined in early 2010, the sector was just pulling out of recession and grew pretty strongly until mid-2011. However, challenges ranging from the Eurozone crisis, to the more recent collapse in the oil price and the slowdown in global demand have all made for a shakier picture.
But manufacturers are highly resilient, and have adapted their businesses to find or create new demand opportunities. For example, since the oil price fell, manufacturers in exposed sectors have developed new products to help them deploy their expertise into new supply chains. Similarly, despite a very flat export picture in recent years, manufacturers have succeeded in upping the proportion of their exports that go to non-traditional markets. While this is no easy feat, it’s something they’re going to keep focusing on in the year ahead as well.
I’ve learnt that EEF is a powerful voice backing UK manufacturing
Our National Manufacturing Conference earlier this week had around 800 attendees from industry, policy, and beyond. It showcased the achievements the manufacturing sector has made, as well as the opportunities and challenges ahead. The global outlook feels particularly uncertain at the moment, but manufacturing has faced challenges before and found its way through, responding, innovating and developing.
And EEF will be there, backing manufacturing. EEF is a powerful voice for the sector, in a range of policy areas such as investment, productivity, infrastructure, skills, employment, climate and environment, health and safety, just to name a few. EEF has been there for the last 120 years supporting the sector and I’m sure it will be there for the next. There’s an incredible team of people at EEF, who are constantly working to understand and represent the evolving needs of this innovative and dynamic sector. I am proud to have been a part of it.