British manufacturing is undergoing a period of transformation. Traditional factories still turn out goods we recognise – cars, ships, trains, textiles – but the most successful sector of manufacturing is in niche products such as industrial sensors or medical diagnostics, whose functions are more difficult to understand.
Over the past year, a group of photographers from Magnum Photos has been documenting the state of manufacturing in Britain as part of Open for Business, a project initiated by Multistory, the West Midlands arts organisation. In visiting more than 100 companies, they have photographed everything from shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing to precision engineering, food preparation, renewable energy projects and medical R&D.
Though technology is driving manufacturing forward, the photographers found that skills such as saddle-making, millinery, model-making and digital animation of the sort that has made Wallace & Gromit a global export are also part of the story. In this special issue of FT Weekend Magazine, we present work from eight of the Magnum photographers involved, each of whom has written about their experience.
Later this month, the first of a series of exhibitions based on the project will open at the National Media Museum, Bradford.
by Peter Marsh
The story of industrial decline in Britain has become so familiar, it takes some effort to realise that things might not be so gloomy after all. In fact, British manufacturing is performing well – though not in the traditional ways that most people understand it. As the shape of world manufacturing has shifted over the past 30 years, Britain has altered too and, in many ways, the country is ahead of the game when it comes to the necessary factors for 21st-century industrial success. It could turn out to be one of the biggest winners in the new industrial age.
Britain is no longer a mass manufacturer of many basic products that are made mainly in large and highly visible plants. Instead the country’s industry has become predominantly a collection of fairly small companies making specialist items reliant on clever technology and new business thinking. In statistical terms, UK industry – for all the impact of the 2008-09 recession – still punches above its weight. With less than 1 per cent of the world’s population, the country is responsible for just under 2 per cent of total manufacturing output, according to the United Nations, putting it number 11 in the league table by output. In the conditions that now prevail in world manufacturing, Britain is full of people with the attributes required to succeed. The essential ingredients include a broad mix of engineering and design skills, an interest in innovation, an ability to think globally across disciplines – and, importantly, a certain cussedness and willingness to swim against the tide.
This relatively upbeat way of looking at the UK is reinforced by an unusual and ambitious survey of its manufacturing in 2013 by a group of photographers from the Magnum agency. Although they visited many household names – including UK subsidiaries of leading international companies such as Siemens, the German engineering conglomerate – they also discovered that some of the best performers are little-known enterprises such as BCB, a Cardiff-based maker of camouflage nets and survival equipment for soldiers. While many of the companies are in niches of familiar sectors such as textiles, others make items that are esoteric, such as medical gadgets or industrial sensors. A link between virtually all the product fields is that individual items are fairly easy to alter – or “configure” in the technical argot – so that they match the requirements of the user. This fits in with the idea that the ability to efficiently – and relatively inexpensively – “customise” or “personalise” goods of many types will be one of the key traits of 21st-century production.
The patron saint – at least in Britain – of this new type of manufacturing is Sir David McMurtry, the longstanding chairman and chief executive of Renishaw. The company, founded by McMurtry and John Deer, now deputy chairman, in 1973, employs 1,900 people in Gloucestershire. It is the world leader in making touch-sensitive probes that monitor with extraordinary accuracy the performance of machine tools and are, therefore, crucial to virtually every type of global production, whether a gas turbine plant in Shanghai or a car factory in Stuttgart. For all the technological excellence and world-beating position of these highly complex measuring devices, most consumers have never seen one, and know very little of the people who produce them.
Another UK business blazing the trail for the new shape of manufacturing – and which likewise makes things virtually impossible for the non-technical person to visualise – is AES Engineering. This Rotherham-based enterprise – run by Chris Rea, a determined and contrary former economist – makes mechanical seals in thousands of variations for ensuring machines in factories making anything from chocolate to chemicals work effectively.
By contrast, among companies making far more recognisable objects but which again fit into specialist sectors of global production are Calder Textiles in Yorkshire, which produces specialist yarn, and Princess Yachts of Plymouth, one of the world’s leading producers of luxury leisure craft. Frank Baines in Walsall combines modern ideas in design and leather-cutting with 300-year-old craft skills to make saddles and other riding accessories in a huge number of variants.
A feature of many of these leading companies is that they have frequently needed to use a mix of disciplines – combining a range of technologies and often blending service thinking with manufacturing capabilities – to survive and prosper during the economic difficulties of the past 20 years. An outstanding example is Aardman Animations in Bristol, which runs a specialist model-making workshop and uses this as the key element in creating highly successful films based on computer animation, among them the Wallace & Gromit series.
Touch Bionics, another small company, tucked away on an industrial estate in Livingston, near Edinburgh, is a world force in making replacement human hands. Apart from “tailored” prosthetic devices based around an amalgam of electronic and mechanical engineering, the company offers counselling services for customers who have suffered a traumatic injury or a life-long birth defect. This customer-support function is a vital part of what this and similar businesses do and without which the manufacturing parts of their operations might be difficult to sustain.
Britain’s car industry has been reshaped in the past decade through foreign owners using a blend of UK engineering skills to create niche types of high-end vehicles suited to a global customer base. A good example is Nissan of Japan, which runs the UK’s biggest automotive plant, in Sunderland. It turns out models such as the Leaf electric car and the Qashqai small sport utility vehicle that are some way from the mainstream of global automotive production. Meanwhile, another noted success story in UK industry is the Formula 1 racing business. This relies on a hybrid mix of manufacturing and service skills to create exotic high-speed vehicles. It also acts as an incubator of technologies that often have uses in other sectors.
It would be foolish to pretend British industry is without problems. The sector would benefit from more large and recognisable UK-owned companies that could act as national standard bearers. Such companies – apart from a few such as Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, JCB and GKN – have largely disappeared as a result of management mistakes and foreign acquisitions. The successful companies that survive spend heavily on technology and are, almost by definition, global. Just as important is that their presence reminds the rest of the population that manufacturing may have a decent future. Therefore, they help to draw in new employees to the sector, especially among young people. Many of the smaller companies that now characterise UK manufacturing are short of both capital and skilled workers – a measure of the lack of attractiveness of the sector over much of the recent past.
But even given these more negative factors, an analysis of UK industry’s current position encourages optimism. It is noteworthy that China – now the world’s biggest manufacturing country by output – is alive to the new factors required for modern-day industrial success. The country realises that the essential elements of its strong manufacturing growth record of the past 20 years, based on cheap labour and modest infusions of technology, mainly from non-Chinese companies, will be insufficient to cope with the pressures of the coming era. This means learning from nations such as Britain that, to some degree, are already moving in step with the changes that will be needed. In the past few years, successive UK governments have woken up to the key economic role of manufacturing – another reason to be moderately hopeful about the sector’s future. Having endured a century or so in which progress has been almost entirely downhill, British manufacturing is in a good position to start revving up.
Peter Marsh is the author of ‘The New Industrial Revolution: Consumers, Globalization and the End of Mass Production’ (Yale University Press; Chinese edition published by China Citic Press) and the FT’s former manufacturing editor
‘Open for Business’ is a collaboration between Multistory and Magnum Photos, funded by Arts Council England and nine UK cultural institutions. A nationwide touring exhibition with work from all nine photographers opens at the National Media Museum, Bradford, on January 31. For further details about the project, including tour dates, please visit www.openforbusiness.uk.com