Any discussion of manufacturing in the UK at the moment is a conversation about extremes. On the one hand, the steel industry is in crisis following Tata Steel’s decision to sell or abandon its operations in this country. The shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle, makes the point eloquently in this publication: stuff has to happen and it has to happen quickly.
The other side of the debate is that we’re doing rather well in the field of innovation. It’s now a few months since the New Statesman published its last supplement on manufacturing, and the subject has moved on apace. This time we are publishing articles on manufacturing and the internet, the so-called Internet of Things and, significantly, 3D printing (also known as “additive manufacturing”). The sheer speed at which these technologies are making an impact is breathtaking; even earlier this decade, the suggestion that someone could print out a car would have been greeted with scepticism. It’s now happening.
Such drastic change brings with it midterm as well as short-term issues. People have been talking about skills gaps and about younger people not having what it takes to enter the workplace probably since the introduction of the sewing machine, but there is now a 20 per cent shortfall in recruitment into the IT industry, according to the worldwide training and accreditation body CompTIA. This would not have been an issue for manufacturing in the past but IT is now a major component. The infographic opposite, extracted from a larger one supplied by the manufacturers’ association EEF, has some telling figures: 60 per cent of manufacturers believe digital technology will improve their business; 62 per cent plan to spend more on internet-connected equipment (this is the Internet of Things at work again) because they want their processes to work by themselves.
The suggestion, echoed by EEF in its article on page 20, is that we are on the cusp of a new industrial revolution and the UK is positioned to be at its head.
The state of the British steel industry in the present and the skills gap moving into the future are unhelpful if this potential is to be realised. The hope is that both government and the private sector will work to resolve them over time.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much time left. The rewards, if these obstacles can be overcome, are considerable.