This week, you can head down to Westminster to hear some of the best stories in engineering: it’s the week the finalists in the MX2010 Manufacturing Excellence Awards come in for the judging process. The judging – open to the public at the IMechE HQ in Westminster – never fails to throw up encouraging stories, from small companies and big ones, from household names and firms you’ll very likely never hear of ever again.
The impression you take away before any results are announced is that manufacturing in the UK is not only alive and well but can compete with the best in the world and often win. And it’s starting to seem as if that may be appreciated in a different part of Westminster too.
The speech last Friday by the new prime minister, with the new business secretary alongside him, about rebalancing the economy and putting greater emphasis on manufacturing has gone down well with virtually everyone in engineering.
Presumably we can now look forward to Messrs Cameron and Cable being the first names to sign up to the new IMechE president’s Engineered in Britain campaign charter that’s launching on the institution’s website.
What has to be stressed, though, is that reasserting manufacturing’s importance to the economy is in no way a regression. The manufacturers who will present their excellences at MX don’t bear a lot of resemblance to the industry of 25, 50 or 100 years ago, and to measure our manufacturing success in terms of employment alone undersells the contribution badly.
Competitiveness in world markets for UK manufacturers is about a range of virtues: innovation in product and process, efficiency in use of resources and people, focus on customers, embracing change. These days that means being lean and fit; manufacturing in the UK is an unsentimental place that doesn’t look back to the labour-intensive past but needs to look forward to a technology-led future.
That’s where the other half of Westminster, the politicians’ side, can help. Modern manufacturing is capital-intensive and long-term. It doesn’t work well with constant change or interfering rules. It needs to be kept in line on environmental, safety, employment matters but it also needs its imagination to be liberated. It’s not a quick-hit fashion thing. And if the politicians can start to understand that, and not undermine the factors that enable manufacturing to flourish, then we on this side of Westminster can look forward to many more stories of excellence in coming years.