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How a big orange shed became manufacturing's new black

Start-ups and sole traders have long struggled for affordable workspace. Building Bloqs co-founder Arnaud Nichols talks to Rohan Banerjee about a solution.

It’s odd to think of an industrial estate unit as inspiring, but Building Bloqs, the brainchild of five co-ordinated creatives, breaks the mould. Located just off the north circular road in Edmonton, north London, an 11,000 sq ft workshop is home to more than 300 different manufacturers. It’s that difference, co-founder Arnaud Nichols explains, that is defining. Building Bloqs is not one single factory but a gestalt network of makers and artists, renting a shared space and equipment under the same supporting non-profit banner.

Surrounded by mostly grey hangars, Building Bloqs’ carroty paint job suggests it is something unique – and that it is. A tour around the site today, which could look totally different tomorrow, doesn’t disappoint, and witnessing ‘work’ seems anything but. There’s even a friendly French bulldog called Hemingway who accompanies his owner to his bay.

“Building Bloqs was born,” Nichols begins, “out of a need, more than anything else. It was started by a group of makers. We [the five co-founders] used to have a workshop in Manor House, with a few freelancers and sole traders. It was a small workshop; then gentrification came along and did a good job of getting rid of workshops and replacing them with houses. There was such a large network of freelancers throughout London and they were also having the same problem. We decided rather than trying to just find another space, we wanted to solve the problem.”

Sporting sandpaper stubble while sipping at a coffee in Building Bloqs’ on-site café, Nichols typifies the relaxed vibe that exudes from the place. The pressures of living and working in London are well-documented. It is Building Bloqs’ aim, however, to provide a comfortable headspace as much as a workspace for its manufacturers.

The plaid-clad 37-year-old continues: “One of the main reasons for setting up Building Bloqs was basically to empower people to access amazing equipment. If you have that all under one roof, then it reduces overhead costs and creates a platform for innovation, new jobs and start-ups.”

Building Bloqs sees collaboration at its core and pooling has themed its organisation from day one. “We started with no funding, just an idea that we wanted to share resources, machines and space. We wanted to reflect the needs of the industry. Five co-founders took out a lease on the building with a few machines and whatever we could scrape out of our pockets. This was the back end of 2012. We put together around £50,000 and our vision was to just get the ball rolling and it’s definitely worked out.”

Asked about a potential loan from the bank, Nichols rolls his eyes. With piercing sarcasm he adds: “Well as you can imagine, banks were doing a really great job of lending money to entrepreneurs,” before qualifying: “starting a business that needs access to expensive equipment is difficult for the one or two-man band.”

While Building Bloqs might be a non-profit organisation, it still needs to make money in order to make its service sustainable. So, how does the company keep costs down – its key selling point – while doing enough to afford bespoke, first-rate facilities and equipment? Nichols points out that while other rental spaces operate on fixed-term contracts, Building Bloqs has fluidity and its network of freelancers are only charged for what they use, when they use it. “We’re on a pay-as-you-go system. If you have a company rooted to a workspace for, say, six months, that means they’re going to be not only taking up that space for six months, but also paying for it even on their days off. We do get instances where people work seven days in a week for an extended of period of time, but once that burst is over, there’s no obligation for them to keep on paying. By freeing up new spaces at regular intervals, that’s how we attract so many and such a range of clients.”

Renting a workspace at Building Bloqs starts as low as £20 per day, with add-ons for specific machine use. A spray-booth day costs £70, while use of the laser cutter is £120 for the day with half-rate and half-length sessions also available. A report published by Workshop East in 2015 found that the average rental costs for London workspaces across a variety of manufacturing disciplines – including woodwork, textiles and glass-making – were £800 per month. That didn’t account for any machine usage.

The capital’s primacy in many industries is, of course, pronounced. Nichols contextualises much of what he says as “in London” but why is this important? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to relocate a business to the North? “Maybe it would be, but London is where the work is. It’s a hub for business, innovation and invention. It is where the ideas and jobs happen.

Nichols’ London’s focus might sound flippant but it isn’t entirely without foundation. A recent government investigation into regional and local economic growth found that The Big Smoke’s £378 billion GVA accounted for 22.9 per cent of the UK’s total, with the South-East contributing a further 15.1 per cent. The north-south divide notwithstanding, though, Nichols is right that London is “full of small, freelance, one-off traders” and indeed about a need to protect them. The Guardian’s architecture columnist Oliver Wainwright noted recently: “The capital is cannibalising its industry, eating its productive space from the inside out, as the manufacturers and makers are moved to give way for the incessant march of housing. In attempting to solve one crisis, we are walking blindfold into another.” Nichols agrees and says: “Building Bloqs aims to preserve London’s manufacturing scene.”

Is Building Bloqs a trade union, by another name? Nichols smirks. “We’re a community and a support network for small companies, sole-traders or start-ups. And having all of these different people and disciplines under one roof is massively useful.” How so? “Well, consider that when I had my old workshop, I didn’t have a spray booth so if I wanted to spray paint something, I’d have to finish my work and then travel somewhere that did. That will cost even more. Crucially, though, I think that having different types of manufacturers in one place means there is access to a knowledge pool that you wouldn’t get by working in isolation.”

Rob Quirk, founder of custom bike makers Quirk Cycles, has based his company at Building Bloqs for two years and feels Nichols’ knowledge economy comments are accurate. “Admittedly, I’m quite niche and I do work alone, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from having people around me. You’ve got two guys in the metalwork section here and between them they have around 40 or 50 years’ experience – that’s invaluable. If I need to know something, say, about a specific tool to use or properties of a material, then I can just turn around and ask them. If you’re working in isolation, sure you’ve got Google on your phone, but you might spend ages trawling through the search results. It’s easier to have that expertise from a real person to hand.”

Joe Buckingham, whose company The Gentleman Blacksmith also rents a bay at Building Bloqs, concurs: “It’s an ecosystem; I’ve made a lot of contacts through Bloqs. If I’ve got 20 regular clients and someone else has the same number in another discipline then suddenly we’re sharing 40 contacts.” Building Crafts College graduate in fine woodwork Ollie Morrion, meanwhile, says: “You’d be hard pushed to find another environment that covers so many disciplines, and with staff so friendly and supportive of whatever your ambitions may be.”

But what happens when a start-up ceases to be a start-up? Nichols speaks in glowing terms about Duncan Strong, a former Building Bloqs user and proprietor of Bespokea, a designer that specialises in customising IKEA kitchen units. Strong left Building Bloqs when his company grew in 2016 but has not forgotten where he came from. The 50-year-old, whose past clients include Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher and TV talk show host Graham Norton, says: “I came across them on the internet, got in touch and arranged to rent space on a monthly basis. My rental costs went from £1400 per month to just £650 per month, with access to all the equipment I needed to test the potential of the business. I am still a member of Building Bloqs and maintain the friendships and business contacts I made there. I am involved in two projects that will be fitted by other members. My website generates a lot of leads that do not fit my business model and I normally pass these to other members. I am very grateful to Building Bloqs for the opportunity they gave me to explore a new business whilst minimising the risks.”

The Building Bloqs vision became a reality, but what’s the dream? Setting down his coffee on the table which could have conceivably been made a few feet away, Nichols responds: “Scalability is related to space. What we have here is a proof of concept – we’ve been going since 2013 and aren’t letting up – and a very functional space, but it’s not enough.” Not enough for what? “Well we can’t build a bridge in here, for example. That’s why we’re moving to a new building, on the same site, but it’ll be five times the size.”

Building Bloqs prides itself on being the leg-up onto the ladder and a sign of encouragement for those just starting out. It is this that Nichols wants to develop the most. “If the UK is going to be a country of innovation then you need to have the skills to deliver that. We want to bridge the gap between new cutting edge digital fabrication and traditional analogue making. We’d like to have a stronger relationship with the local colleges and universities, and the makers of the future.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.

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Train the workers for the new revolution

Tim Thomas, director of employment and skills policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, says government action is urgently needed to meet the skills challenge of Industry 4.0

Britain is on the cusp of a global, technology-driven fourth ­industrial revolution, with eight in ten manufacturers saying it will become a business reality by 2025. In the global battle for dominance, the expectation is that ­innovative firms will be able to take the lead and help position Britain as the manufacturing and technology hub of Europe.

This will bring clear benefits to the sector and the wider UK economy. The rapid advance in technology will play to Britain’s strength as a high-value manufacturer, with suppliers able to produce more bespoke products and deliver more rapid and cheaper prototyping. It will increase the importance and value of manufacturing within the UK, enable more production to be “re-shored” or brought back from overseas, and lead to increased demand for highly skilled workers.

It opens up a wealth of opportunity for the UK – but here’s the rub: Britain’s ability to take advantage and be a frontrunner in Industry 4.0 is not a foregone conclusion. Quite the opposite, in fact – six out of ten manufacturers tell us that there’s a very real danger of the UK being left behind.

Manufacturers can see a number of hurdles to overcome if we are to remain in the race.

Not least of these is managing the impact that Industry 4.0 will have on the supply and demand for skills. While increased demand for highly skilled workers will be great news in terms of job opportunities, pay and the potential boost to the UK economy, for manufacturers it is a double-edged sword. This is because our sector is already struggling to attract enough skilled workers, and the situation as our demands – and those of rival sectors and competitor economies – skyrocket is only going to get worse unless urgent action is taken now.

The UK’s ability to be a power player in the digital industrial revolution hinges on the government working with industry to get to grips with the skills crunch affecting our sector. Over the next three years alone, industry bosses expect a significant increase in the demand for skills. At the same time, almost three-quarters of them are worried about how this demand is ­going to be met, with the supply of skilled workers in some areas already drying up.

This concern is built on experience. Almost three-quarters of manufacturers have found it difficult to recruit skilled workers in the past three years. They are challenged by both the quantity and quality of candidates, with firms regularly forced to contend with a lack of technical skills, an insufficient number of applicants and a lack of relevant experience – a perfect storm.

At the same time, government statistics show that the number of “hard-to-fill” vacancies in manufacturing remains stubbornly high at 35 per cent – unchanged from 2013 and worse than in 2011, when it was at 30 per cent.

This situation is set to deteriorate even further, as manufacturers expect a significant increase in their own demand for skilled workers over the next three years. Almost six in ten expect to need more people management, leadership and production-related technical skills (59 per cent in each case) over the next three years alone.

They predict similar increases in demand for craft and technician (53 per cent), sales and marketing (52 per cent) and IT and software skills (47 per cent) over the same timeframe. These spikes in demand reflect how manufacturers will want to make strategic hires to drive forward their productivity and growth plans. Unfortunately, however, this will place even greater pressure on an already diminished skills pool, leaving almost three-quarters of manufacturers concerned about accessing the skills their businesses will need.

Firms are already attempting to overcome their skills challenges by offering a range of incentives to attract and retain highly skilled employees. These include competitive salaries, training, opportunities to work in other areas of the business and flexible working. Apprenticeships are also going to play a critically important role in helping firms to close the skills divide over the longer term.

If manufacturers had not been taking these steps we would arguably already be over the cliff edge, not just approaching it. But it’s also increasingly clear that, despite the best efforts of the UK’s manufacturers, our sector cannot resolve this issue on its own.

Far from getting to grips with the issue, the government has largely left manufacturers to try to soften the impact of the skills crunch on their own. At the same time recent policy changes, such as the National Living Wage, the apprenticeship levy and the proposed immigration skills charge, have added to our sector’s burden and done little to support employers.

Worryingly, despite multiple warnings about the UK’s yawning skills gap, the dial hasn’t moved since 2012. Manufacturers continue to struggle to find the right people with the right skills, and undoubtedly this has led to lost opportunities for employers, would-be employees and the UK economy.

We are today just about treading water and the struggle is only going to get harder without a step-change. The demand for skills is going to soar in response to manufacturers’ ambitions around Industry 4.0. Getting the right quantity and quality in place will be critical, which is why manufacturers are urging the government to take firm action now.

The government must match the ambitions of industry and ensure that the UK’s education and training system delivers the skills that employers require. Policies must help, not hinder firms. They should provide support, rather than hitting employers with additional costs that could potentially hold them back. At the same time, the government must start thinking like business and take a long-term view.

This means ensuring that the UK isn’t just geared up to deliver the skills that employers require today, but has a strategy in place to be able to keep pace with Industry 4.0 and the accompanying skills requirements in five, ten and 15 years’ time.

The UK’s skills crunch needs a consistent and concerted approach. Manufacturers already have workable ideas on how it can be tackled. In the short-term, the main priority is to scrap the proposed immigration skills charge and introduce grants to tackle under-representation in apprenticeships. Mid-term, the Institute for Apprenticeships should identify gaps in provision and capital funding for further education, and the roll-out of National Colleges should follow employer demand. Longer term, we want to see targets for secondary schools for the number of Key Stage 4 pupils going on to apprenticeships.

These are practical solutions that the government could and should commit to today. The clock is ticking. The reality is that Britain needs to start putting a long-term industrial strategy in place now, if it is to capitalise fully on the opportunities to be had from the digital industrial revolution.

Our sector’s ability to remain on top of the fourth industrial wave hinges on the decisions made now and over the next decade. The government must work hand-in-hand with our sector to alleviate the pressure that Industry 4.0 will place on skills. If it fails to act, today’s skills crunch will rapidly tip over into a crisis – and with that the UK runs the stark risk of being left behind.

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