News & Views

Brighter prospects in the post-Brexit reckoning

Above: Engineers at CMR Surgical in Cambridge have developed a novel robot to assist in medical operations, in a prime example of UK technology innovation

While 2021 will hardly be easy for the UK’s manufacturers, there is room for optimism, even with many of the details over Brexit remaining unsettled. The key date is January 1, the end of the transition arrangements for the country’s slow and inglorious departure from the European Union.

The procedures governing how the UK operates in areas such as product standards and trade will no longer be set by Brussels. With talks over a trade deal with the rest of Europe making little progress, the prospects are growing that no agreement on this key issue will be reached by the end of 2020. While that is intensely worrying for manufacturers, the most serious impact should last for only a limited time. On the health front there is more positive news. The introduction of three new coronavirus vaccines offers hope that a pandemic that has wrecked the lives of millions can be tamed.

The scenario provides the backdrop for UK manufacturing in 2021. The sector comprises activities across an often complex “value chain” involving conversion of materials and ideas into products and services. A business doing R&D on a new medical instrument, leaving the physical fabrication to another entity, is as much part of manufacturing as a firm that does both.

Across this spectrum, innovation and new thinking in the UK appear strong. The efforts to combat Covid-19 have thrown up many examples of this, from development of new ventilators to medical test kits. In emerging sectors such as 3D printing and robotics, new companies have been started to take advantage of novel ideas. Examples include Hieta – which uses 3D printing to make complex heat exchangers to improve the efficiency of jet engines - and CMR Surgical, which produces robots to help perform hospital operations.

One of the three vaccines that will be rolled out globally is a home-grown success story, resulting from a joint venture between the AstraZeneca drug company and scientists at Oxford University. Beyond this, instances of innovation, some small and incremental, with others more far reaching, can be seen in virtually every part of UK manufacturing, from chemicals to construction components. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult, a network of research centres linking academia and industry, acts as a focus for much of this effort, supporting many small and medium-size businesses.

Behind these cases of new thinking are, in many cases, teams of young, technically qualified people who have found that manufacturing offers them rewarding jobs. The central aim of Made Here Now is to discuss innovation in production industries and encourage more young people to consider careers in the sector.

The High Value Manufacturing Catapult brings together several research centres helping industry develop new thinking - in this case involving research into powder-based materials

The pandemic has coincided with a new interest in making things at home. Consumers – both in the UK and overseas – have shown more signs of being positively influenced by the “British-made” brand. Domestically, it seems that stronger consumer interest has been fuelled by a combination of economic partisanship and a sense that the country has become too dependent on other nations for certain goods such as protective clothing for health workers (from which the UK suffered dire shortages in the early stages of the crisis).

“People are keener than ever to buy more British-made products to support the UK economy and many of us are willing to pay a premium to do so,” says John Pearce, director of Made in Britain, a trading group with 1,400 members that use the group’s branding to sell at home and for export. Reflecting this interest, and what seems a growing recognition by manufacturers of the virtues of signalling where their products are made, Pearce’s organisation has added 400 new members since March, three times its growth rate in previous years.

The final reason for optimism is that Boris Johnson’s government has announced a “levelling up” strategy that should, if properly implemented, benefit manufacturing. In recent months Johnson and his fellow ministers have hardly covered themselves in glory. Their efforts to handle the Brexit negotiations and the pandemic – admittedly a tough double-act to pull off – have been marked by misjudgements and poor planning. But in the effort to increase the wealth of regions that have fallen behind economically in recent decades, the government has the chance to demonstrate a surer touch. If the prime minister is serious about his plans, he will want to channel grants and other forms of aid to manufacturers in specific regions with good ideas and prospects. Sensing what lies ahead, the chief executive of one successful production company says he is pushing ahead with plans for a new factory. “I am hopeful my ideas will attract government assistance as part of a post-Brexit policy of industrial intervention,” the executive says. 

The coming year will be tough. The post-Brexit difficulties should not be underestimated. But UK manufacturing should end it in a better position than at the start.