Our poor productivity relative to other advanced nations has been a sore point for years. Last November – you remember, before the General Election, our subsequent exit from the EU and the outbreak of COVID-19 less than three months later – leading accountancy firm PwC published a study that reminded us our output ratio trailed that of the US by 30% and Germany’s by 10-15%. Blaming poor levels of investment in R & D, the authors argued at the time that successfully tackling the so-called ‘productivity puzzle’ had the potential to boost the UK economy by £83bn per annum.
Well, a lot’s happened since then, with many companies and whole sectors brought to their knees by the pandemic. A massive program of rebuilding needs to be undertaken in its wake, but the challenge, surely, should be to seize the opportunity to rebuild better – not just go backwards to where we were before. If nothing else, the virus episode has graphically demonstrated the huge benefits of embracing new technologies.
The Government has already responded. On September 11, the Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, announced a new £300m fund with the expressed aim of boosting UK manufacturing productivity by a hefty 30%. Through the ‘Manufacturing Made Smarter Challenge’ – a joint venture between Government and industry – the project will focus on helping businesses of all sizes and from all sectors to implement new technology.
The first £50m has already been allocated to 14 manufacturing projects involving around 30 small or medium-sized businesses, 29 large enterprises and nine universities, with the rest of the funds due over the next five years. One of the projects involves exploring the use of robots and automation to improve accuracy when welding parts on the production line. Another will explore the use of digital robots to help design bespoke products and then upload that design on to suppliers’ websites so the product can be prototyped, sampled and manufactured. The other projects are just as visionary.
Mr. Sharma added the following : “ By helping manufacturers to reduce costs, cut waste and slash the time it takes to develop their products, this multi-million pound uplift will help fire up the cylinders of productivity as we build back better from the pandemic.”
So, let’s all strive to ensure that some lasting good comes out of this difficult time. The technical revolution promises to make it an exciting time to be an engineer in the UK’s manufacturing industry.