Rebalancing our economy with Manufacturing – a fools errand?

A recent article in the FT showed that experts don’t believe that UK manufacturing can grow with sufficient vigour to turn the UK economy around in any meaningful way whilst a recent FT survey of UK manufacturers seemed to suggest that they were waiting for the government to wave some kind of “Harry Potter style” magic wand which would make them more competitive and more successful.
Why is this a surprise?  Of course manufacturing alone can’t get us out of the financial mess that we are in. What we really need are well rounded, customer focussed enterprises, who understand what customers want to buy and who concentrate their efforts on manufacturing quality products that meet their market’s requirements. That’s how successful brands are built, how sustainable profitability is created and how we will all claw our way out from under this pile of debt.
Back in the early Nineties I was seconded to the DTI’s Innovation Unit to help think about how we could embed an innovation culture into UK SME’s. This was on the back of running a small engineering business which was experiencing 25% per annum compound growth, exporting to 23 countries, had won a Queens Award for Export and made very healthy bottom line returns for the owners. Was this a fancy high tech industry?  No – we made springs and queuing barriers. 
Our business was successful because we had taken the time to understand our market place, evaluate our competition and then organised ourselves into an effective machine which delivered perceived value to our customers. Manufacturing was an integral part of the process. Were we a manufacturer?
Clearly yes, but we were many other things as well. Our job was not to blindly make things. It was to determine how we could achieve sustained customer preference by having the best offer in our chosen market.  Manufacturing, of itself, is not the universal panacea for the UK economy. Someone needs to tell the guys in production what to make.
This country has some of the best thinkers, designers and marketers in the world.  Some of them work in “manufacturing” and create successful, sustainable enterprises as a consequence. Think of Dyson and Triumph motorcycles as two examples. 
Dyson derives four fifths of its revenues overseas and is going from strength to strength investing in product development and design to create world beating products. “[Recession] doesn’t seem to have affected us at all. People like buying new and better technology. It’s like Apple. If you have a good product then people will buy it even in a recession.” Sir James Dyson recently told the Times.
But you don’t have to be the size of Dyson to have a successful, sustainable business.   Everyone has to start somewhere. We started our queuing business in the early Nineties with nothing more than a good idea and today its part of global enterprise with 400 employees and a turnover of £60million.
SMEs are the lifeblood of the UK economy. They account for over half of all employment and the profit (and tax revenue) they generate could make a huge difference to our collective financial position.
I was invited to an RSA event at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD for short) last year. In a riveting speech the Principal told us of the history of BIAD. He explained how the Royal Society of Arts was originally called the Royal Society of Artisans and how the Society and BIAD were originally set up as a response to an international competitive threat.
Manufacturers of a whole host of consumer products around Birmingham had realised that they were losing sales to French manufacturers because of their superior designs. It was decided to create bodies which would encourage the development of British design skills and broker them into Midlands manufacturers to enhance their competitiveness.
I would contend that a collective response is required if we really want successful companies who make and sell products effectively in the world market place. We have a handful of stars, like Dyson and Triumph who are truly globally competitive but what are we doing to foster more?
Shouldn’t we have an industrial strategy that drops down into a defined and measurable action plan? Shouldn’t we be getting our best practice bodies in marketing, product design and lean manufacturing to work together collaboratively to proactively market the benefits of their services to our remaining UK manufacturers whilst we still have some?
Shouldn’t we be asking those that have and are out there achieving today to help inspire the rest and what, in their opinion, we need to do to have more businesses in the UK like theirs?
Face it, it’s not rocket science.