Some of the country’s foremost manufacturing experts, business leaders, and academics assembled in Wakefield yesterday in a unified ‘show of force’ for the manufacturing industry – and the critical role it can now play in helping the UK overcome the present economic crisis.

In light of runaway inflation and a struggling UK economy, the panel said that manufacturing could be “the key” to rebalancing investment and industry across the country, driving higher levels of GDP growth, creating more well-paying jobs, and increasing British exports abroad.

The panel discussion was held at Sewtec Automation, who partnered with Coventry-based research and technology organisation Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and cross-party think tank The Institute for Prosperity (JMI). JMI seeks to revive communities, such as Wakefield, that have suffered from a steep decline in manufacturing over recent decades.

The panel was moderated by former minister and former Labour MP for Don Valley Caroline Flint, who is also the Chair of The Institute for Prosperity.

Former minister Caroline Flint said: “We all agreed that manufacturing could be the key to helping the UK overcome its current pressing economic challenges. It can help unlock many of the solutions to the problems that we face as a country.

“We need to make sure that the right policies are put in place to not only protect manufacturers – but to make it pay to site and ‘reshore’ new manufacturing facilities here too. We all agreed that investment in innovation and a confident workforce where young people, especially girls, see a future for themselves working in manufacturing and engineering is especially important.

“We need to find solutions so that people can see a career in manufacturing from an early age and the jobs and opportunities manufacturing creates in the places they live. Leading manufacturers, like Sewtec, play an important role in the local community, providing high skilled jobs to hundreds of local people, investment in emerging technology, and exporting British made goods.”

The panel included JMI founder and economist John Mills, who chairs consumer goods distribution company JML; Mike Wilson, Chief Automation Officer at MTC; Mark Cook, Chairman at Sewtec; Tom St John, Multimedia Editor at The Manufacturer, and manufacturing academic Dr Yan Wang.

John Mills, founder of the Institute for Prosperity, said: “It is clear our manufacturing is in a dire state. More than 16% of people worked in manufacturing around 20 years ago, but today that number is closer to 8%. For far too long has the Government run the country in favour of bankers in London rather than makers in Wakefield.

“It is time for root-and-branch change, starting at the heart of how our economy is run. Investment into manufacturing generally leads to more GDP growth than other services sectors, so it’s vital that it’s not forgotten. To rebalance the UK economy, we need to increase manufacturing to 15% of GDP.”

Mills stressed that to be taken seriously on the global manufacturing stage, drastic changes would have to be made. One solution to revive the industry was a competitive exchange rate policy. Lowering the value of the Pound, according to Mills, would help reindustrialise the country as British-made goods would be made cheaper and therefore more competitive overseas.

Dr. Yan Wang, Principal Lecturer in manufacturing at the University of Brighton, highlighted the potential presented to the UK by becoming a leader in remanufacturing, which is the process of rebuilding ‘as-good-as-new’ products using a combination of reused, repaired, and new parts.

Wang highlighted how remanufacturing would both help the wider economy shorten supply chains whilst assisting the manufacturing sector become more sustainable and hit Net Zero targets. She noted a recent survey that showed that the remanufacturing sector was increasingly positive about the economic outlook going forward – but said that the remanufacturing sector was held back by a lack of awareness and understanding amongst consumers and other manufacturers.

Mike Wilson, Chief Automation Officer at MTC, highlighted the huge potential that automation and robotics presented to the UK industry. He said that more companies were now investigating options to reshore their manufacturing operations because of the higher costs of global shipping – and that adopting automation at all levels of manufacturing in the UK would enable us to continue competing effectively as a manufacturing powerhouse globally.

However, Wilson also warned about the risk of ‘reshoring’ becoming ‘near shoring’, with companies seeking to bring their manufacturing operations closer to the UK from Asia, but still opting for other countries in Europe rather than the UK. He stressed the importance of automation as a ‘competitive advantage’ for UK businesses – and called on the government to make the UK one of the most attractive places to set-up manufacturing plants.

Mark Cook, Chairman of Sewtec, said that manufacturers, Government, and the wider industry needed to do more to transform perceptions of manufacturing being a ‘dirty and unsafe’ industry to that of being an innovative, high-tech, and cutting-edge sector, like Sewtec’s own leading facility. Having worked closely with schools and universities, Cook highlighted that when young people visited the Sewtec facility they were impressed and excited by the prospect of working in such a high-tech sector – but that they often came in with misconceptions and false impressions about the sector.

Cook also highlighted the need for the Government to incentivise for more companies to invest in manufacturing, especially SME companies that might be investing in their first machines and equipment. He urged the Government to consider an extension to the current super-deduction as well as a potential tailored rate of Corporation Tax for manufacturing businesses.

Finally, Tom St John spoke about the countless inspiring manufacturing success stories that he had reported on recently, especially interviewing leading women in the manufacturing sector. He said that more needed to be done to ensure that these British manufacturing success stories were told much more widely on a national level to transform perceptions of how modern manufacturing looks, as well as highlight the incredible female talent in the sector to inspire the next generation of women to join the industry.

Following the event, Mills added: “UK manufacturing is in a dire state: more than 16% of people worked in manufacturing around 20 years ago, but today that number is closer to 8%. There needs to be some targeted interventions for it to be profitable for UK manufacturing to grow and flourish. In fact, earlier this month we published a report detailing the solutions to the current energy crisis facing the UK manufacturing sector. The report states that a new carbon tariff needs to be imposed on polluting foreign manufacturers that import goods into the UK. 

 In short, productivity in UK industry is astonishingly low, but our exchange rate is far too high; in order for our manufactured exports to once again be competitive in price, the answer is simple: we must lower the exchange rate – devalue the Pound, bring it in parity with the Dollar – and manufacturing should comprise 15% of our country’s GDP. If not, Britain will lag behind in the wider global economy. To achieve this, a cross-party initiative should be introduced to realise its potential as a tool for reversing our slow economic growth and for promoting job creation.”