Creating competitive advantage in British manufacturing caught in the Made in Britain Twitter net: 4 February 2021

EVERY Thursday at 1pm Made in Britain hosts #madeinbritainhour on Twitter. During that hour Made in Britain asks questions of its 19,500 followers and the results are fascinating. Previously this information was enjoyed by the audience at the time and then left to drift away in the Twittersphere, rarely read again. So, we have decided to capture some of the best comments and re-present them for a new audience and easy reference. Some of the responses have been edited.

This week we look at creating competitive advantage in British manufacturing.

Question one: How can automation allow a manufacturer to create a competitive advantage both nationally and internationally? What are the barriers to automation?

Response: Automation lends itself for its consistency and lead times. 12 CNC's operated by one individual drastically cuts down costs, allowing #UKmfg's to compete on quality and price The barrier for us, is that Metal Spinning CNC's need to be imported, and prices remain high from EU. We could opt to import machinery instead from Asia, but the economic barriers as a result of the pandemic has made this difficult I'm sure many are aware of the lack of containers currently for shipping which has driven up shipping prices by as much as 7X

Made in Britain: Have you calculated the price they'd need to fall to at which point it is worth investing in the new machines?

Response: European countries charge as much as three times more for machinery than Asia (both of which utilise the same parts, but source the lathe bed for example local to them) We also understand shipping costs are high and aren't expected to fall this month

Response from Made in Britain member European Springs and Pressings: We touched on this recently in this post… automation can improve quality & repeatability, increase production capacity, reduce H&S concerns & should be cost effective. Investment however can be a barrier

Response: Automation does not have to be expensive. Speak to line operators, ask what could be done to make the job quicker and easier for them. They will have thought about it. If implemented they will have ownership to make it work. For international markets, there is a need for Government/BoE to ensure exchange rates do not create a barrier to international sales

Made in Britain: That's a really interesting point and raises the question about whether there is a misunderstanding of what automation actually means?

Response: I was always speaking with line staff. In one case it was as simple as a folded piece of steel. It turn and presented product to the machinist in the right orientation. It saved 15 seconds and reduced muscle strain. Time saved per shift was considerable

Made in Britain: Something similar to the concept of Quality Circles. Let the people closest to the work suggest ways to improve?

Response: Automation usually goes hand in hand with precision too. When machines are able to more accurately manufacture parts/components, this improves their usability

Response: As @ExcellMetalSpin said automation drives down production costs & lead times freeing up our production staff to do the more complex builds but our machines also come from either Europe or the Far East. As for barriers its costs as they ain't cheap! I'm not sure of the ROI but I would guess an automated crimp machine can crimp many more cables and be more consistent then someone like myself with a hand tool. There would also be less swearing & blood loss!

Made in Britain: Is cost one of the main reasons not to automate even if it is possible?

Response: Value for money I think would be the big deciding factor which links to costs Are we ready to expand? Is demand high enough? if not can demand be created? what's the difference between X and Y lathe? is it faster? more efficient?

Made in Britain: Over what period of time would you look at the costs for in evaluating the purchase of additional machines?

Response from Made in Britain member Excell Metal Spinning: We compare manual methods with automated methods over a specific job. We record the time it usually takes manually and compare this with CNC automation. With the added benefits of robotics integrated with CNC's, the loading and unloading of parts makes it even quicker

Excell: Value for money I think would be the big deciding factor which links to costs Are we ready to expand? Is demand high enough? if not can demand be created? what's the difference between X and Y lathe? is it faster? more efficient?

Response: Certain jobs we do couldn't be automated due to the complexity such as soldering a 100+ pin connector, however most can. Just means resources can be better deployed elsewhere in the business.

Response: Completely agree with this, there are times when manual methods are still required

Made in Britain: Is there a question about whether resource would be deployed elsewhere or resource could be reduced to reduce the costs? That’s the other side of automation?

Response: Thinking about it, it could be closely linked with "opportunity cost" and looking at the pros and cons before making the final decision to invest

Response: Certain jobs we do couldn't be automated due to the complexity such as soldering a 100+ pin connector, however most can. Just means resources can be better deployed elsewhere in the business.

Response from made in Britain member Peerless Plastics: As has already been said most replying to this, automation means consistent quality and accuracy, allowing fewer staff to man a line freeing others up to follow bespoke projects. Machinery prices can be very high and sometimes bespoke options are needed which increases costs.

Made in Britain: Has anyone any idea as to how many companies have taken a second look at automation as a result of the pandemic, limited staff availability etc?

Response: would be a fascinating paper

Response: Needs must. I recount a visit to Outokumpu in Finland in the mid 90's. There are few people living in Northern Finland, their automation was incredible back then. Heat retention and handling systems come to mind

Response: One of the companies I deal with has automated more of its processes and it is working for them , but then most of their processes were already automated, so it was an easy switch for the rest.

Response from Made in Britain member Manthorpe: We are always looking at improving processes and how automation can drive the business forward and this has become more relevant since the start of the pandemic

Response: Automation has really helped us, and has in fact propelled our business forward! We look to further expand within the next few months with further investment in our people, processes and equipment

Made in Britain: For some businesses is it possible that automation makes them less nimble and flexible than before?

Response: It depends on your business and its production processes you have adopted (which we covered all six in our blogs) For us, automated machinery needs to be able to load and unload different tools to manufacture a wide range of different sizes / shapes / thicknesses etc.

Response: We think it makes you more nimble, agile & adaptible. Staff skills have then more time (because of automation efficiencies) to respond to the needs of customers and prioritise as necessary.

Manthorpe: Barriers to automation include lack of capital needed to invest in automation and a lack of employees who are trained to use automation.

Made in Britain: Do you see it as one big step or the possibility to do it in a series of small steps - similar to @NigelTPacker point about it doesn't have to be expensive

Response: Automation is important where it can be used. We have CNC machines which we can run overnight but most of our finishing process is manual and hard to automate. We specialise in bespoke and low vol so good blend 

Made in Britain: Is that a competitive advantage in itself? the ability to deliver low volume?

Response: Yes I think it is - we are niche but provide great flexibility in batch size which is ideal if high value and innovative where markets are still being established

Made in Britain: Being niche is certainly an advantage, niche and nimble? resisting the temptation to get into bigger markets?

Response: We know where our process fits and for who - to chase the bigger volumes just wouldn’t work. Know your market know your strengths 

Response: Automation can free up resources that can be reskilled in other operational areas to add #competitive value. There are many repetitive tasks that can be #automated, but it isn't for everyone either. #madeinbritian. Interested in hearing from companies that have introduced it.

Response: Not sure how much input into bespoke adj. of automative tools mfg firms have, but suspect they have ideas for mods to kit that would produce opnl wins. If supplier relnships allow for such joint customisation of machinery, that might give comp. advantage?

Response: Inevitably automation means fewer people will be employed in manufacturing & many other industries. It's a ship that's sailed & can't be turned back. It might be necessary, in the near future, to avoid a competitive disadvantage.

Made in Britain: Does that mean that the decision is being put off by many until they just have to do it?

Response: No, it might simply mean that they don't yet see it as inevitable.

Response: Automation has a lot of benefits ! It provides consistency, accuracy as well as fast turnaround, which can win jobs which need to be done very quickly

Question two: How can a manufacturer use ‘being local’ to generate a competitive advantage over international competitors?

Response: For a local market, being local is a great advantage for its market...minimal disruption to supply, lower costs to deliver to end use, low carbon footprint, a person to speak to at the other end of the line who is on same timeline and speaks the same language.

Made in Britain: We should also probably consider the full supply chain, it can be a local supplier with a raw material from overseas. This then raises more questions?

Response: It does and this may be an issue of time until a lot of companies realise there are gaps in the market which they can fill

Response from Made in Britain member European Springs & Pressings: We've just written about this too. As overseas price advantage dwindles, more focus is being put on local products, face-to-face personal contact & quality assurance – & that is driving business back to the UK

Response: This. Closer comms & on-site access to customer businesses (one day...) will allow suppliers to understanding & opportunity to deliver tailored solutions to an extent that is just not possible w. distant suppliers.

Response from Made in Britain member Excell Metal Spinning: Localising your supply has many benefits! Quicker transport > Quicker Lead Times > (depending on the supplier) better quality > low / no language barriers > no tariffs / import fees > therefore lowering costs Together improving efficiency and easy of service for customers. More sustainable and greener regarding transportation > contributing to ISO 14001 (I believe) with additional accreditation making you a much more attractive company to do business with

Response: Question is whether certain "Departments" or "Purchasers" feel the need to try and put a financial value on these benefits or not?

Excell: I imagine from a financial perspective it would equate to greater profit margins From a sales / marketing perspective it would equate to greater flexibility in terms of service and price strategy among other things From an operations perspective it could mean greater efficiency

Response: I am sure the market places a value on them...they will purchase what is available at the price they can afford. It is good to consider the product from the end user's position...that quickly put's the concept of value into perspective

Response from Made in Britain member Linian: The ability to react quickly and to control our continuity of supply to our customers. 

Response: With so many focusing on CSR and the world trying to reduce their impact on the environment, being local means reduce carbon footprint! It also allows for better customer service, their are no time zone problems or phone call fees!

Response: As has already said really, quicker supply of materials and delivery of finished product, less barriers all round. Local maintenance of lines means less downtime allowing faster turnaround, lowering costs

Response: For sure. Shorter supply chain, more reactive, greener, and if they are a  @MadeinBritainGB member quality is guaranteed

Response: Lower delivery volumes to lineside for the UK client gives huge advantages for their production cost. As was said last week, ordering from Asia has volume and delivery issues

Response from Made in Britain member Manthorpe: Choosing to manufacture in the UK can set your company positively apart, and the Made In Britain mark can be a valuable marketing tool. Positive perception because the UK public tends to perceive products manufactured here as being of better quality than products made overseas

Made in Britain: There is also growing evidence overseas that certain markets will pay a premium for British made goods. The challenge is making the distinction between "British made" and a "British brand"

Response: Interesting and a good point about making the distinction between two

Made in Britain: We did some research and almost half of consumers said they struggled to determine whether a "British brand" was actually "British made"

Response: The environment, climate change & sustainability collectively are uppermost in consumer's minds. If you've an operation that's 'not'; being local is THE thing to hang a marketing hat on. If you're eco-friendly 'local' should already be in your marketing mix

Response: They are all components of being #sustainable, and very much part of a growing segment of the purchasing market

Response: Do "big companies" miss a trick here? should they add this into their mix? 

Response: Many companies miss a key trick ... but it's not a trick ... Look at your business through the eyes of your customers. What you see through your won, isn't relevant any more.

Response: Value is always in the eyes of the beholder (ie read market/customer/client), not the maker who is trying to sell it!

Response: Well said Phil. I did a TED talk on it many years ago. Explore the core customer and see what they are buying. It is often nothing to do with what you are selling. Many of the side issues created by fashion trends go as fast as they arrive.

Response: They should...if not, sooner or later they will lose traction. There are sectors where at the moment they are not high on the agenda, but even as regulations get introduced, electrical transport, alternative energy sources...these will all impact the industries, forcing change

Response: Shopping for anything, supporting local businesses firstly is the most “green” way! Also, with #climatechange on everyone’s mind, it just makes sense!

Question three: Is lifetime cost of a product a useful way to compare products? Is it widely used?

Response: A customer of ours has brought back to life, with bit of an investment, a shaking table that was purchased in the early 90's and then left outside for a couple of I will always argue our machines are built to last!

Made in Britain: We have seen on twitter over the last few weeks more British manufacturers sharing photos of their old products still in use from around the world.

Response: We are still supporting shaking tables from the 50's and 60's today...they are little like Triggers grandfathers broom, but hey that's when they were initially installed!

Response: We focus a lot on the wear and tear of products/components. The less expensive downtime it causes a business, the better value a component is. Replacing machine parts is expensive after all 

Made in Britain: Is it sometimes difficult to put a prospective cost to breakdown/downtime to give a full lifetime cost?

Response: You can do the usual stress tests etc. on components to gain some insight. We primarily manage this through comparison, ie. a plastic part will last X amount of time compared to a steel part -- for example. 

Response: I think from a consumer point of view this is widely used! Many will be willing to pay more money upfront with minimal maintenance costs down the line, over cheap upfront costs with major costs to maintenance and repair jobs say months after buying!

Response from Made in Britain member Peerless Plastics: It certainly is as something may appear cheaper on initial investigation but any hidden maintenance and parts costs may be very expensive and increase the costs long term. Also cheaper products may not perform as well and need replacing more frequently.

Response: This is dependant on the product. As consumers, we have moved from repair to replace. In some instances this is practical, but for many products it is wasteful

Response: I think it depends on who you speak to when starting a project. Engineers want something build to last while bean counters always look for cost outs. You get what you pay for. Then there are other costs such as downtime, site visits repairs....etc.

Response: Funnily enough, we're just starting to look at it more as a USP - something maybe we should have done a while ago. Knowing we can offer a lifetime guarantee through our fatigue testing is maybe a new comparison we should add

Response from made in Britain member Alltrade Printers: In print, certain decisions are made based on the longevity of the use of a brochure for example which has a longer life than a magazine. So most definitely

Question four: Is resistance to change and ‘we’ve always done it that way’ a factor that is holding back some manufacturers from creating a competitive advantage? 

Response from made in Britain member Excell Metal Spinning: Potentially fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge Not knowing where to start, or who to turn to for advise can leave many "dazed". We hear a lot about the IoT for example and why we need it, yet we never hear about where to start or who to turn to

Response from Made in Britain member European Springs & Pressings: We've written about this too & you couldn't be more right on the where too.… IoT & smart manufacturing hold a significant amount of power when it comes to influencing how the manufacturing industry develops in the coming years

Response: IoT is a market in infancy that has potential in some areas. They are still trying to work out what to do with it themselves.

Response from Made in Britain member Alltrade Printers: Yes definitely, trying to get things changed is hard work

Response: I really believe UK manufacturing in the 50's and 60's was screwed over by the war mentality of we beat them, we are the best, we dont need to change. Meanwhile the rest of the world developed, and by the 70's and the old boys retired, we were uncompetitive and under developed?

Response: During the 50's, and 60's Japan sent its engineers around the world to learn production systems from the US and UK. They did not adopt our systems they improved them then introduced them. In the 70's they were selling the systems back to us.

Response: And Nigel this is another important point, protecting IP, and making sure that our edge is not stolen by those we service, consult and sell to.

Response: Yes and to an extent it was here. One of the positives from the pandemic is it forced us to make decisions, invest do in months what would have probably taken years of discussion. A load of shiny new kit & a change to workflow have improved our processes and our responsiveness to clients demands.

Made in Britain: What is the expression "instead of feeling the rug being pulled from under your feet, learn to dance on a moving carpet"? Seems like thats just what you've done?

Response: It certainly was. Luckily as we are an SME we were agile, able to adapt. Production guys are happy with new kit that makes their life easier and delivers consistency as well as looking at the flow around the factory to enable social distancing has improved efficiency

Response: Yes -- especially for historic businesses. If you have 50, 60, 70 years of experience behind you, why would you want to try something different? Evidence is always the solution to this. Prove to your potential customer/client that your service is worthwhile.

Made in Britain: and prove to your employees as well?

Response: Of course! If your employees do not believe in your product/service, who will?

Response: There must be buy in from management. Contracting an external with new eyes, no preconceived ideas and not constrained by internal politics is the only way to break the “we have always done it this way” mind set. 

Response: Most definitely. Get them to read Who Moved My Cheese!

Response from Made in Britain member Linian: Change is scary for anyone especially when, like us, we specialise in life safety systems. That's why our product is backed up by rigorous testing, it's our job to give you the comfort to change! 

Response from Made in Britain member Manthorpe: A positive attitude to change or otherwise stems from the management team the primary reason for failure is bad management of change in the workplace. Strong communication skills & the ability to promote the 'vision' to different audiences is key

Response: Yes I think so, if it's not broken don't fix it mindsets come into play, as change = risk! However, without a bit of risk you could find yourself stagnant with competitors evolving and thriving! What people forget, there is such a thing as calculated risks!

Made in Britain: Is it a case of getting employees and even management to look outward and see what the risk is if they don't change. That's where the externals that Nigel was talking about come in useful. 

Response: Always and often - across every level of management and reviewing regularly

Response: Sharing best practice across sectors would benefit everyone immensely - there is so much to learn.

Response: Never give up on learning. the more I have learned the more there is to learn. Sharing the learning helps everyone.

Response: Learn, innovate, implement, test, review, learn, innovate, implement, test, review, learn, innovate, implement, test, review, learn, innovate, implement, test, review, learn, innovate, implement, test, review, learn, innovate, implement, test, review, learn

Response: Markets have changed, technology makes processes easier & cheaper, why would you not revisit operations & equipment; upgrade & adapt 2 maintain competitive advantage? I have worked with companies that stick their head in the sand: sooner or later, the market moves on

Response: In some cases, yes. If you've been successful at something for a long time it's hard to see any need to change and sometimes rightly so. If you're struggling or falling behind competitors it may be necessary to get in trusted fresh eyes to shake things up and help change.

Join Made in Britain on Twitter at 1pm every Thursday for #madeinbritainhour. We engage with everybody, members and non-members alike (some of whom become members as a result). Hopefully, see you there.

By Made in Britain 7 months ago | Made in Britain news

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