Can we make it? Yes we can

Can we make it? Yes we can

It shouldn’t surprise us that the UK in general and the North East in particular are raising the pace in manufacturing once more. Our achievements are not always as obvious – that’s all, says Dan Burrows.

We’re proud to be British during big national events such as the Olympics or Diamond Jubilee of 2012.

The rest of the time it’s a different story. Like a tax inspector or coldcalling salesperson, we as a country are rarely happy to stand tall and talk about how good we are at what we do.

As for UK manufacturing, it’s even less likely you’ll hear shouting from the rooftops. Perhaps because there’s not much to shout about? Manufacturing output in the UK has recently fallen; that’s so.

Difficulty looms for high value engineering and specialist manufacturing businesses as they struggle to replace retiring staff from a small talent pool; that’s a fact also. Look around you, too.

I wager you’ll struggle to find Made in Britain displayed on products around you. Living in the North East, I’m surrounded by those who’ve seen manufacturing dying; whether it’s the shipyards or Alcan in Lynemouth, we’re aware of closures and job losses.

Yet I also know so many people, in the North East and beyond, who work in manufacturing and - not including the 5,000 who build Nissan cars just up the road from me - are making all sorts of things.

Foodstuffs, for example: maybe that’s not the classic British heavy manufacturing of the past, with noisy machines and operators in overalls, but we’re still making things on a large scale.

I know, too, people who make other things: performance monitoring solutions for diesel engines, fuel-saving accessories, caravans, even boats.

When I leave the office tonight I won’t use any UK-made products – a German car, a Chinese-made smartphone designed in California, Italian plates, French-made glasses, a Japanese television and even a mattress made in Denmark.

Yet my life wouldn’t be the same without British manufacturing. Obvious though it may not be, we ARE still making things. Maybe not the things we’re constantly touching, the fashionable clothes so many want to wear, or the newest gadgets we all love to own.

But things we all want, need or can’t do without are still made possible by those vital people still employed in what are, according to official statistics, industries now growing, however slowly.

Not, then, the end of Made in Britain, as doomsayers would have us believe. Under the bonnet of my favourite motorsport I find expert British manufacturers head a global marketplace of unusual, innovative, and highly specialised products.

Our expertise in niche manufacturing and specialism in high-accuracy engineering has British firms dominating Formula One and many other top-flight motorsport series on four and two wheels.

Every British based F1 team supports a wider group of expert manufacturers making cutting edge products designed to give critical tenth of a second advantages over rivals; with the majority of cars both designed and built in the UK, there are more than 40,000 employees within the UK motorsport industry, generating annual revenues estimated to exceed £7bn.

While we may no longer have home-grown volume British car manufacturers, the technology we rely on daily - from tyres keeping us safe on the road and crash structures which protect us, to engine technology, “drive by wire” control systems, emissions reduction and even hybrid technology - has all been delivered, thanks in no small part, to developments within the industry of motorsport.

Jetting away on holiday this year, only 110 years since the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight in a manned aircraft, travellers from the North East will cover millions of miles across our skies.

Few will consider that another UK manufacturing success is responsible for their safe delivery. A manufacturer in Derby for more than 100 years and builder of more than 13,000 jet engines currently in service, Rolls-Royce proves that UK manufacturers can be globally successful.

Its cutting edge technology powers hundreds of thousands of flights a year. Rolls-Royce is rightly acknowledged as being at the forefront of the global aero-engine industry. Every day too, billions of us rely on another technology resulting from British endeavours.

An Englishman, Tim Berners-Lee is credited with the “invention” of the worldwide web. That may not qualify as manufacturing in itself, but despite the backbone of the internet being built on hardware assembled in the Far East, UK electronics manufacturing is among the most highly regarded globally. Parts designed and made here are crucial enablers to technology we use every day. Engineering and manufacturing talent in the UK, responsible for so many inventions which change our world, is still alive and well.

Gone may be the days of steam hammers, furnaces and heavy machinery. But the British desire to tinker in sheds means we will always be experts in changing lives, and bridging that final gap when others have long since given up and gone home. Manufacturing isn’t dead. We just need to begin to believe it.

Dan Burrows is senior business consultant with Waterston’s Ltd, the Durham business and IT consultancy.