The Manufacturing Wales Virtual Event on 21st April brought together member organisations from across the Welsh manufacturing landscape, to hear ‘what’s happening?’, discuss ‘what’s new?’ and shape ‘what’s next?’ in one of Wales’ most valuable economic sectors.
Sponsored by founder member The Safety Letterbox Company and hosting two keynote presentations from Barclays Bank and Fovotec, the virtual meeting began by welcoming three news members – Chris Burgess and Tim Brotherton from GTS Flexible Materials in Ebbw Vale, Simon Pritchard from Philtronics in Hirwaun and David Wakeling from Toucan Systems in Abertillery. Frank Holmes, Chair of Manufacturing Wales, kicked off the meeting by asking the new members what they wanted to get out of being part of this pioneering new community.
“We’ve always known that ‘Made In Wales’ made sense from a product and supply chain perspective”
“The “Made In Wales’ mantra of Manufacturing Wales is something we have voiced at Philtronics for the last 18 years” explained Simon from Philtronics.
“My background is in buying and I know that most people in industry have experienced at first hand the many fallacies of offshoring, where the maths always stack beautifully on paper, but the reality of poor product delivery and extended lead times meant that any cost efficiencies disappeared – usually along with the product IP. So I’m delighted to be part of a collaborative manufacturing community that’s focused on optimising the manufacturing prowess we have here in Wales.
As an example, we’ve recently been working closely with Swansea University to create a real breakthrough for the sports industry, which will make headlines when it’s launched in the next two weeks. And we’ve been a strategic delivery partner of Creo Medical and SPTS, two other members who are present tonight, for a number of years. So we know the manufacturing potential is here in Wales and want to help maximise it. ”
“It’s all about being ahead of the curve – and being part of Manufacturing Wales will help us achieve that”
Chris passionately shared Simon’s belief in self-sufficiency based on collaboration:
“We have invested significantly in our own R&D facility at GTS, as well as continually refining our manufacturing processes, to make sure that we’re ahead of the curve in meeting the demands of the automotive and power generation sectors. 90% of our orders are for international markets in Europe, China and Korea, so we never stop learning and we’ll never be complacent. That’s one of the reasons why we joined this network – to constantly learn new best practices and see how we can continually refine our own operation. Despite the pandemic, we don’t feel we suffer any great disadvantages being here in Wales – and we want to prove just how good we can be on the world stage.”
That ambition was echoed by David Wakeling at Toucan:
“We’ve been making bespoke products for many different markets since 1986 and it’s fair to say that we would never have imagined a Brexit or a Pandemic. To get through both of them shows the resilience we have here in the Welsh manufacturing community – and the importance of the local supply chain. We have the opportunity to build on that experience and turn it into a key competitive advantage of manufacturing in this part of the world.”
“Our experience at Toucan shows the importance of working with a resilient local supply chain.”
The first guest speaker of the evening, Lee Collinson (National Head of Manufacturing, Transport & Logistics for Barclays) brought a highly pertinent update and fascinating set of insights into the current state-of-play for the UK manufacturing sector:
“As tough as this time has been, there’s clearly many opportunities as well as challenges” said Lee. “Overall the sector has witnessed 3.9% growth and output is increasing strongly, with most manufacturers managing to stay open during the pandemic. The situation varied quite starkly between sectors, of course. Some manufacturers serving the Food and Internet-based industries saw record performances; those in sectors such as aeronautics, automotive and hospitality have had a very tough time.
“Key trends have included accelerated Re-shoring and M&A activity, a big growth in D2C sales and ongoing uncertainty due to Brexit”
“The key themes have been clear – with a renewed emphasis on business continuity, as some businesses discovered that they weren’t quite as resilient as they had thought. And there’s definitely been an acceleration towards re-shoring as manufacturers have re-examined their supply chain models. Most manufacturers have seen their order books hold up or quickly recover. Many capital projects have been put on the back-burner, for understandable reasons. And there’s been a definite increase in M&A activity.
“One of the biggest movements for manufacturers has been a surge in Direct-to-Consumer sales, which as a sector could rise from £96bn to £120bn. Underneath it all lies the uncertainty of Brexit, of course – and much is still to play out, including the impact of the recently announced eight free ports. A question to ask is ‘should there be a free port here in Wales?’ All of this upheaval would have been difficult enough without the additional impact of a global pandemic. But it’s now all about making the most of this new working environment.”
“It’s now all about making the most of this new working environment”
Looking forward, Lee saw clear areas that manufacturers need to address and optimise:
“Climate Change and Decarbonisation is an opportunity for positive change. We did anticipate activity in this area to slow down during the pandemic – but the opposite proved to be true, with manufacturers of all sizes looking to become more carbon efficient and CO2-friendly. Customers are increasingly making buying decisions on how progressive manufacturers are in this area, so this trend will only accelerate. The evolution of Technology and Digitalisation has also moved apace, with some manufacturers totally transforming and others taking lots of small steps – again, we can only see this trend continuing.
“The lack of sufficient Skills remains a worry, with students at school age not being shown how rewarding a career can be in modern-day manufacturing. Barclays recently part of a successful ‘Manufacturing Week’ in Bradford, where we helped open the eyes and minds of young students to what working in manufacturing is really like – but the sector needs to do much more to improve perception amongst people with all types of skillsets.”
“Climate Change, Decarbonisation, Digitalisation, Skills and R&D are all key areas.”
“Likewise, there’s more to be done in R&D” continued Lee “where we need to nurture closer links between government, education and manufacturers – creating specific courses that develop the skills for the particular needs we have in manufacturing. And finally, our Infrastructure still leaves a lot to be desired – across road, rail and fast broadband. We’re still seeing bottlenecks in productivity because of this; so it’s a real priority.”
Lee summarised by saying:
“we’re not out of the woods yet, but order books, employment and production activity are all improving. There’s a general mood of cautious optimism” – a sentiment echoed by Frank, who also shared feedback on the continuing “Brexit aggravation” being felt by some members of Manufacturing Wales; and confirmed Cardiff Capital Region’s intent to explore the possibility of a free port in South Wales, incorporating a number of ports.
“There’s cautious optimism but we’re not out of the woods yet”
During the Q&A that followed, Lee answered a number of searching questions from the members present, which included principals from AB Glass, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Creo Medical, FSG Tool & Die, IQE, Ministry of Furniture, Modplan, Penderyn, Pro-steel Engineering, Rototherm, Shufflebottom Ltd., SPTS Technologies (a KLA company), Stately Albion and the University of South Wales – before Frank introduced the second guest presentation of the evening, with Robert Pepperell and Alistair Burleigh, founders of Fovotec, taking the audience through the practical possibilities of the world’s very first imaging software based on human vision and human nature.
Fovotec evolved through ten years’ development with many different stakeholders (including Cardiff Met) and has just announced a strategic partnership with Unity, the world’s leading interactive content platform. Robert scoped how the tech’s evolution involved working with many different sectors that included leading players in the automotive, construction, engineering, food and luxury goods industries – and now offers endless possibilities to the manufacturing sector, particularly around product marketing and visualisation, in a world that has moved to viewing so much online through multiple screens. There was keen interest from many members present and Frank pointed out that this potential ‘early-collaboration’ is an example of how the Manufacturing Wales community can work together to give each other a competitive edge.
“An example of how we can work together to give each other a competitive edge”
Bringing the meeting to a close, Frank thanked all members and guest present – and put the next meeting in everyone’s diary for 21st May, where the topic for discussion will be Transitioning to Agile Working, with Professor Amanda Kirby of Cardiff University – an acknowledged world expert in Neurodiversity – attending as a special guest.