The 99% you see, but don't need to hear
Written by: Miranda Birch
1 min read
Before you know it, that familiar phrase, ‘How many miles to the gallon’ will be replaced by one word:
Range is the distance your electric vehicle can drive before the low battery icon strikes fear into your heart.
When your EV does go the extra mile, and you reach a re-charging station before your battery dies, SDE Technology is one of the companies you’ll need to thank. This small, family-run business in Shropshire has already invested heavily in the car you haven’t bought yet – and in the ones that your children and grandchildren will use. Working with Imperial College, it has taken the first UK production licence for a new manufacturing process called HFQ: Hot Form Quench.
So, what has HFQ got to do with keeping your blood pressure and battery happy?
Traditionally, metal pressing companies like SDE Technology work with materials like aluminium, when they are cold.
As its CCO, Chris Greenough points out, ‘There's a limit to how much you can stretch that piece of metal
without it either breaking or splitting. With HFQ, you heat the material up, put it in a press, and then form it as it flows. It means you can make thinner and lighter components, and ‘lightweighting’ is key for electric vehicles. If they are lighter, they can go further on the same amount of power. You get more range’.
In other words, this company, with a team of 100, is leading the way nationally with a technology that will save people money and do its bit for the planet.
This story tells you several things about the UK’s manufacturing sector.
The UK manufacturing sector - the 99% you see, but don't need to hear.
First, it’s not just big brands with serious R&D budgets that are willing to invest in cutting-edge technologies. Many smaller companies like SDE Technology are future proofing themselves by looking ahead to the next generation. By doing that, they also support the UK economy as a whole – keeping the supply chain local, creating jobs and developing the skills that go with those new roles.
The skills piece is vital. Tom Mongan is the President of the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber Of Commerce, and has ‘nigh on 50 years’ of manufacturing behind him:
“As I was growing up in the Coventry area, it was Motor City. We had the Triumphs. We had the Rovers. We had the Jaguars. We had such esteemed OEMs, which, apart from Jaguar, have all disappeared.” (‘OEM’ means Original Equipment Manufacturer: the company that makes the car, also makes all the parts.)
“So as an apprentice in a large company, you could go around learning all these skills. I was taught everything, from heat treatment to plating. It was all encompassed within the factory. With the demise of these OEMs, I think SMEs come to the fore – because of the skills that they bring to the table, and the opportunities they give young people to get into manufacturing.”
I used the phrase ‘many smaller companies’ earlier. When I say ‘many’, I mean it. SMEs like SDE Technology – businesses with fewer than 250 staff – make up 99% of the country’s economy. That includes most of the UK’s manufacturing supply chain. Individually they might be classified as ‘small’. Together, they are huge – in terms of skills, jobs, innovation and agility.
Huge - but hidden
All too often, the stories of this 99% are hidden from view. Partly because the engineering ingenuity that Chris describes is concealed – literally – under the bonnet or in the bodywork. And of course, it’s not just about cars.
Manufacturing shapes our world, at home and at work. But familiarity makes us blind. Andrea Wilson is a Director at Hone-All Precision, a SME that makes complex tubular components:
“The range of products that we see coming through our small factory alone is immense: from hip screws to rocket launch tubes; from replica cannons for movie sets to oil and gas drilling equipment. Our parts have been in space. They've been under water. We've helped submarines communicate. We've helped get an aeroplane off the runway."
“But you don't see the engineering and manufacturing that's around you every day. And yet you wouldn’t be able to do 90% of your daily tasks without something that one of our SMEs has designed, made or sold.”
It’s not just the IP and products that are concealed. The businesses themselves are often tucked away out of sight.
“All these amazing companies are hidden on industrial estates or farmland or down the street. Behind that little house, there's a little workshop, creating things that would just blow your mind.”
And their owners are too busy getting that amazing stuff out of the door to sing their own praises. Even the rich diversity Andrea describes can work against them, because they have had no unifying brand, specific to SMEs. Until now. (More on that in a moment.)
Coming out of hiding: the Covid effect
During lockdown, the agility and ingenuity of these micros and small businesses – in manufacturing and elsewhere – popped up on our radar. In hospitality, gin distilleries, big and small, switched to hand sanitiser
production. In manufacturing, SMEs contributed to The Ventilator Challenge and PPE. Sam Baynham is the MD of ConeX Portal, which connects manufacturing, design and engineering businesses to genuine leads across the UK:
“We're in a remote area of Cornwall, and a few of our members of ConeX Portal wanted to support carers and the people that weren't getting access to some of the PPE in the early days. They completely switched their business model. They weren't using their 3D printers for their normal design projects. They were just out there, printing masks for people. I think it was quite common amongst a lot of SMEs across the whole country. It was nice to see that coming together in the manufacturing community; proving that they do have a lot to offer.”
This desire to showcase what manufacturing SMEs have to offer – to politicians and public - lies at the heart of the campaign launched on LinkedIn by Andrea Wilson and Chris Greenough. Under the banner of Support UK Manufacturing - The Voice of the UK Supply Chain. They, and their growing number of supporters, regularly post on the difference SMEs are making to the economy. Their campaign is timely, given the supply chain problems facing the UK. Tom Pickering is CEO of Icebreaker Executive Management, an Engineering Company Turnaround service, and WinningThinking, which upskills engineering leadership in the space of one day. He sums it up succinctly:
“Industry has always thought it needs to be tech. No, it doesn't need to be tech. You can see what's happened with PPE: it's been shown to be absolutely vital that we get control over our own destiny; our supply chain and manufacturing – and that will create jobs at all levels. We need to have that sort of work and we're very good at it as well.”
Time to wipe history
If you’re anything like me (before I started researching this article!) you might not realise that we’re ‘very good at that sort of work’. You might assume that manufacturing is more 19th than 21st century: Industrial smog not sophisticated technology. Thanks to everyone I’ve spoken to, I’m updating that view.
“Many people don't think that we make anything in this country anymore. That's completely wrong! We need to raise the profile of UK manufacturing, put it back on the agenda with governments to say, 'Look, without a strong UK manufacturing sector, you can't have a strong UK economy. You can't rely on the service sector and banking to pull us along. We need to be making more of our own product and we need someone to be banging the drum for UK manufacturing.'
Even the 20th century does the sector no favours. Katy Davies is CEO of CamdenBoss, which designs and manufactures electromechanical components and connectors – ‘small fiddly electronic things’ – and the plastic enclosures (or boxes) that keep ‘other people’s amazing tech – think motion sensors, fire sensors, braking systems – safe, clean and dry.”
This is all smart, forward-thinking stuff. But Katy feels that the way in which her sector is perceived is trapped in the past, far-removed from reality:
"It pains me that we feel like a bit of a forgotten industry or something that the UK left behind in the 1970s. There's still this incredible baggage that goes with manufacturing, when we are looking to recruit. People think that it's dirty and a bit old fashioned. It's just not a glamorous place to be. I think it's because it's fallen out of the national discourse.”
Speaking up for manufacturing SMEs
Which brings me to the main asks of the Support UK Manufacturing campaign. If you connect with Andrea and Chris on LinkedIn, you’ll get more detailed updates and – as this video shows, you’ll also be inspired by the energy and stories of everyone featured in this article.
In the meantime, here’s a taste of what will enable thousands of companies like SDE Technology to contribute even more to the UK economy:
#1. A strong, single voice... with no shuffling
The campaign wants the appointment of a ‘Commissioner for Manufacturing’. Someone who – ideally – has a background in SME manufacturing, is above party politics and will stay in the role, even as governments come and go, and trade and industry ministers are shuffled about. The shuffling takes us neatly to Ask #2:
#2. Strategic stability
When companies like SDE Technology spend huge amounts on cutting-edge IP and plant, they need some stability. Chris: “Some of the capital equipment that we have invested in has a 5 to 10-year payback. We need to know that that equipment is not going to be subject to a major policy change, as we saw with
diesel being replaced by electric.” Hence the call for an All-Party Agreement on a 10-year Manufacturing Investment and Expansion plan.
#3. Skills, skills, skills
We need people with the right skills to bring any long-term manufacturing strategy to life, which is why the campaign also wants a review of skills funding. This includes a commitment to teach technical skills from a young age, using Primary Engineer as a template.
Jeff Beacham is Director at Authentica Resourcing. He specialises in executive search and interim management for manufacturing and engineering businesses. Like everyone I spoke to, he feels the skills shortage is an urgent problem:
"I'd like to see the Prime Minister, the Minister for Industry and any Commissioner for Manufacturing, all communicating with the Education Minister – really giving that person a kick up the behind to ensure that schools are actually promoting manufacturing and engineering as a valid career choice. Rather than telling school kids - and I've heard that this happens - 'If you don't get good grades, you will end up in a factory'. That's not helping anybody!’”
#4 Sustainable innovation
The campaign also wants recognition that UK Manufacturing is contributing to Net Zero, and is a solution to achieving carbon neutral, rather than the cause of environmental damage. Tom Mongan: “The Government is looking at reducing carbon footprint, with the COP26 agenda, and they're saying, 'We have to reduce our waste and carbon footprint’ etc. Manufacturers are doing that already, as a rite of passage, by investing in the very latest technology.”
#5 Share and shout out
The contributors to this article made it clear that this campaign is not doing down big OEMs or the good work of other umbrella groups, like Make UK. It’s more a case of levelling up on behalf of SMEs.
"We are all connected. I've worked for some really great, large manufacturers. But, as SMEs, we get forgotten because the talking stick is often occupied by the larger manufacturers. We forget that we've got these staggering numbers of incredible SMEs that are all massively contributing to the skills pools of the UK supply chain and UK economy. We just need to get ourselves back into the limelight and get a bit of government support and attention to raise our profile.”
If you are a manufacturing SME and have yet to connect with the business owners in this article, please reach out to them. The campaign needs your support and your stories. Given you are part of this vital 99%, it’s right your voice gets heard. And help get other brilliant companies like yours into the limelight, by encouraging them to share their stories.
Whether you work in manufacturing or another sector, please pass this article on to anyone you think will help to get the Voice of the UK Supply Chain heard properly.
Get going now.
You can get involved by connecting to:
Andrea Wilson, Hone-All Precision
Andrea posts regularly on LinkedIn, with an update every Thursday on the campaign.
Chris Greenough, SDE Technology.
In his Monday LinkedIn post, Chris picks a subject or news story and writes his thoughts around it. You can also follow him on Twitter @SupportUKMfg, and listen to his SMEFocus on Saturdays, on the FactoryNOW site.
Tom Mongan, Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce.
Katy Davies, CamdenBoss.
Sam Baynham, ConeX Portal.
Tom Pickering, WinningThinking, Icebreaker Executive Management.
Jeff Beacham, Authentica Resourcing.
For updates on what is happening in manufacturing, Steve Parker covers the
latest in his Black Country Xtra show every Friday at 5 pm.