Make it count: Can UK manufacturers seize growth opportunities?

At our inaugural Manufacturing Industry Day event, representatives from Britain’s leading manufacturers, small and large were joined by expert speakers to discuss exploiting growth opportunities while managing risk.


Common perceptions of UK manufacturing are outdated. The idea that Britain’s manufacturers are dirty, old-fashioned businesses with a dwindling share of the global marketplace could not be more wrong: the UK manufacturing industry is the world’s ninth largest, it employs more than 2.7 million people across the country, and accounts for 69% of research and development spending in the UK.

Moreover, British manufacturers are well-placed to grow – and to move up the global rankings. Delegates at Santander’s Manufacturing Industry Day shared a sense of optimism for the future, reinforcing broader industry research suggesting that the outlook is positive.

Ready for growth

Research from EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, presented to delegates, reveals that output and order books across manufacturing have proved resilient in 2018 following a year of strong growth in 2017. International demand for UK goods has been particularly strong.

EEF’s Chief Executive Stephen Phipson told the event:

The UK’s manufacturing sector is hugely competitive in the global market and its most successful businesses are modern, hi-tech and innovative.

This is not to suggest the path to growth is straightforward. Challenges for manufacturers include the slowing rate of global growth, which could be exacerbated by further escalation in trade tensions between the US and China. Brexit remains a frustration for manufacturers, many of which are putting investment decisions on hold until there is greater clarity about the future. At home, skills shortages, lack of access to finance and patchy support from policymakers all represent problems to be overcome.

Yet despite these hurdles, many manufacturers are already growing fast – and there are clear opportunities to accelerate:

  • Increased international trade: manufacturers already account for 45% of UK exports but there is a real chance to drive overseas sales much higher. “The respect abroad for UK-manufactured goods is huge,” Bernard Molloy, Global Industrial Logistics Director for Unipart Logistics, told the event. “We can build on that to sell more both into the European Union and beyond: our trade with the rest of the world is already stronger than anything we see coming out of Europe.”
  • The Fourth Industrial Revolution: many UK manufacturers are at the vanguard of the next wave of change sweeping the world, spanning technologies including automation, artificial intelligence and the internet of things. “We are really on the precipice of this revolution and the UK can lead the world,” said John Patsavellas of the Department of Manufacturing at Cranfield University. “It’s significant that we now have an Industrial Strategy in this country for the first time and we must now seize the opportunity to exploit these technologies.”
  • Supporting scale-ups: there are already more than 2,800 manufacturing businesses across the UK at “scale-up” stage – growing rapidly, increasing sales and creating jobs – so encouraging these firms, and helping create more of them, must now be a priority for policymakers and the broader community of stakeholders that work with the industry. “These are the manufacturers driving productivity and innovation, boosting employment and increasing their exports year after year,” said Irene Graham, Chief Executive of the Scale-Up Institute. “These businesses tell us their priorities are strong leadership, recruitment of talent and access to markets.”

Confronting the risks

There will be challenges to overcome, in both the short and longer term. Certainly, Brexit represents a headwind in the months ahead, but many manufacturers are well advanced with contingency planning and focusing on new opportunities, particularly to increase trade beyond the EU. Similarly, the talent shortage could be a brake on growth, but manufacturers are trying to be proactive, investing in their own training programmes and apprenticeship schemes.

In short, there is everything to play for. Delegates at Santander’s Manufacturing Industry Day were certainly not blasé about the challenges they face – but working collectively with a broad range of partners, they are optimistic about the prospects for stronger growth.

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