A generation ago, it became clear — for better or worse — that the strengths of the late 20th-century UK economy were in financial services, retail and property far more than in manufacturing, which had suffered painful bouts of shrinkage relieved only by the arrival of a wave of Asian-owned assembly plants. Some pundits were even prepared to say factories no longer really mattered: let lower-waged nations do the world’s manufacturing while we do the designing, advising, financing and selling.
The journalists who wrote that are probably the ones who only ever visited factories for ministerial photo-opportunities staged to make dull policy announcements look a bit more interesting. But we should all get out there as often as we can, because the role of manufacturing in the 21st-century UK economy can only be understood by seeing it in action.
I had the good fortune a few months ago, for example, to tour the Eurofighter Typhoon assembly shed at BAE’s Warton factory on the Lancashire coast. A dozen of the world’s most sophisticated warplanes could be seen at varying stages of completion in a silent, super-clean atmosphere that was more laboratory than shop floor.
I learned how millimetre-perfect alignment of nose, body and tail is achieved by laser technology, and how the steel frames on which the planes sit are piled deep into the sand beneath to eliminate tidal movement. I asked about the function of the wingtip pods, and was told they contain sensors that tell the plane what evasive action to take when fired at from the ground or the air: the pilot doesn’t have to react, just let his computers fly him out of trouble. Indeed the pilot barely has to be hands-on at all, in the sense that the entire flight can be pre-programmed: he (or she) is the mission commander of an electronic masterpiece that flies itself.
And that’s a useful metaphor for leading-edge manufacturing of all kinds today. It’s an activity that has long since ceased to be noisy, dirty or labour-intensive; nowadays it is all about automation and quality control.
Another of my recent visits was to JCB in Staffordshire, where the product — the ubiquitous yellow digger sold all over the globe — is lower-tech than a fighter plane, but built by similar hi-tech methods that bear no relation to the dark, satanic mills and assembly lines of old. Likewise, at Cadbury’s confectionery factory in Bourneville the image that sticks in my mind is of hip-shimmying robots in the packing area, working with extraordinary speed and precision.
This trend isn’t new: the Nissan car factory on Wearside which produces more than half a million cars annually has been setting global standards for almost 30 years, combining British ingenuity and design excellence with the Japanese concepts of kaizen (‘continuous improvement’, actually borrowed from an American engineer called W. Edwards Deming) and poka-yoke (‘Cut the cock-ups,’ as a Nissan worker translated it for me on my tour).
The point is that the vast majority of Britons now-adays don’t work in factories, or visit them, and are stuck with an old-fashioned vision of how they operate. This outdated understanding was fuelled in a sad way recently by reporting on the closure of the Redcar steelworks, whose Thai owners could not make the site profit-able because global demand for steel has weakened. The loss of 1,700 jobs underlined the fact that this was a piece of industrial heritage from a different age — a blast furnace dating back to 1917, which last flourished in the days of nationalised British Steel. Yes, in heavy industries such as steelmaking and shipbuilding, the UK is unlikely to be able to compete again in the foreseeable future — but they have not much to do with the kind of smart manufacturing at which we can still excel.
I’m talking about a mixture of science and art, of high engineering skills and brilliant imagination, minus the physical toil and grime of old. But what such factories do not do is create large numbers of new jobs: those will come in the service, retail, leisure and healthcare sectors, catering for a longer-lived population with (we hope) more disposable income than previous generations.
To generate that income, and pay for our retirement years, we need an economy that is highly productive, that is not reliant on expensive imports of manufactured goods, that sells to the world, and that offers opportunities for entrepreneurs, engineers, bio-scientists, programmers and apprentices to be part of excellent manufacturing businesses in the UK, rather than taking their talents and ideas to the United States or elsewhere.
So that’s what factories are for — visit them when-ever you have the chance, and celebrate their amazing achievements.