Make little, Make often: ideas for the future of manufacturing in the UK

I gave a talk last week at Made North in Liverpool. My point that time around was suggesting a way forward for “industry” in a time where economic growth is a key agenda item for Mr Osbourne.

The Children
I think that when we talk about industry, most people have a romantic view that ignores the reasons why we stopped “making things” in the first place. One of the reasons why industrial times was so successful was partly because we had no qualms about hiring children to work (something Lewis Hine documented very well). Eventually when that was socially frowned upon, we started outsourcing the work to other people’s children and developed better technology to do less work. Cheap labour is China’s competitive advantage and short of going back to slave labour, the UK cannot go back to “making things” in that sense. Sorry.

Stuck in the 20th century
Traditional manufacturing is not only losing out to China but also to the US which is inventing products that people want to buy, and offering services in new ways. When products like Scalextric and model trains are losing to digital toys (iPads and iPhones), we have to wonder not only what is happening to local manufacturing, but also whether demand for those products will ever be the same.
However, the manufacturing industry in the UK seems convinced that this digital revolution has nothing to do with them. The website for the UK’s Manufacturing Summit is the poster child of a cultural disparity across the country. With so much local talent in the creative industries, how could they possibly get away with a plain html website with no social media presence and a form to fill in to book tickets. We’re not in Kansas anymore and this isn’t 1995.
Creative people around the UK want to learn from UK experts and want advice about developing their products. But if a 20 something can’t find your business on Google, you don’t exist to them now. This is the kind of world we live in.

New ways of making
This should be a golden age for UK manufacturing. People are making things everywhere at various scales. In Hackspaces, studios, universities, at home, in their sheds. This is a nation on tinkerers after all. People are coming up with an idea using an Arduino, building a prototype, redesigning the electronics using Fritzing going to Tinkercad to build a box for the prototype. Then they will have the box made by a Makerbot, Ponoko, RazorLab, i-Materialise, Shapeways or other rapid prototyping manufacturers around the world who understand their users want to click a “upload” button and have something sent to them in the post.

That is a different kind of customer for UK manufacturing. It is a digitally-empowered one and to understand him/her, the industry has to adapt. Once that customer has a product they are happy with, they will look for funding through Kickstarter or sell their product online through Etsy or Folsky. (Most of these digital services were not developed in the UK, I hasten to add.)

New business models
The opportunity may no longer be in large scale production, but in pre-production and longer-term production support. The UK’s manufacturing expertise should be the ideal trampoline to enable local entrepreneurs to get something made quickly with someone locally who is exploiting their existing networks in Asia. UK manufacturers should be China’s agents in the UK and reach out with the latest technology to young entrepreneurs who need help.

This is a very exciting time for UK manufacturing if it accepts that their clientele is changing. If anything, the Uk government should be looking at helping all these companies digitise their services and really understand what an online presence can do for your business. This won’t mean as many large contracts but will mean lots of small contracts. If Newspaper Club has re-invigorated the struggling industry of newspaper printing, it’s possible for any industry to benefit from a more digital attitude. It’s only a question of faith.

3 thoughts on “Make little, Make often: ideas for the future of manufacturing in the UK

  1. Hi Alexandra – Great post!
    Here at sugru, we are big believers in what looks like a new start for manufacturing. We manufacture and assemble sugru from a micro factory in central london, in the same location where we do our science, design and other creative work getting people excited about repairing and making.
    As a manufacturer, we don’t see sugru as a commodity – the value in what we do is to make something new and helpful for people which is informed by our observations and ideas and powered by our own science. Like in your slideshow, we may have started with 1000 packs, but we’ve produced and sold over 100,000 packs now, which means around 1m minipacks have gone through our machines in the last 2 years. On an industrial scale that’s still small, but it’s growing fast and we believe that in a few years we will be a big business, probably still manufacturing and employing people here in London. Basically – all I’m saying is that there is a potential for scale and economic significance in businesses like sugru.
    If we’re part of a new type of manufacturing – it might be what I’ve heard termed a ‘post-industrial production economy’ on this website which also has some useful links.
    http://innovationandgrowth.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/the-post-industrial-production-economy/
    Speak soon I hope – maybe you’d like a tour of our factory if you’re in the area some day?
    Jane.

    • Great post and follow up. We’re currently gearing up our business to micro manufacture electronics kits and things to make and do. We’re looking to add value to items we import and add our own home made products to them to make them better.

      We’ve been inspired by the maker movement and hope that UK manufacturing will start to look at customers like us as ones worth having. Currently we’re a bit under served and I hope this changes.

Comments are closed.