Though manufacturing has changed beyond recognition, it is alive and well in the U.K.

It is received wisdom that manufacturing in the United Kingdom is virtually extinct. It has been superseded, the argument goes, by finance and other service industries and, given the current dire state of the financial sector, that is a cause of concern.

Received wisdom is often not what it seems to be and it needs to be received with a measure of sceptical caution. A few days ago I was present at an event that demonstrated clearly that reports of the death of manufacturing had been greatly exaggerated. The event was the official opening by the Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of Cambridge University, of a new building specially designed to house the Institute for Manufacturing (I f M). The Institute has been in existence for 10 years, but it grew out of other innovative initiatives of the University's large and distinguished Engineering Faculty.

Practical approach

The approach of the I f M, in the words of its head, Professor Mike Gregory, is to bring together engineering, management and economics, and to link education, research and practice. In accordance with this, the building contains laboratories, but also workshops in which students gain hands-on experience of manufacturing processes. The Institute, as Mike Gregory explained at the opening, is concerned with the whole cycle, making the most of ideas, and joining them together so that they lead to practical outcomes.

It is no surprise, given the international standing of the university, that the Institute has an international focus, working with business and academic partners around the world.

The official opening of the building was just one of the activities of the Duke of Edinburgh during a two-day visit, on one day of which he was joined by the Queen, marking the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the university. They also visited Ely cathedral as part of the celebration of the 900th anniversary of the diocese of Ely, and ended with a visit to the Cambridge-based Marshall Group — which operates worldwide in the fields of aerospace and military vehicle engineering and design (and has a network of car dealerships in the UK) — to mark its centenary.

Just over 50 years ago, I went to work as a journalist in Wolverhampton, in the middle of the Black Country — an area north and west of Birmingham which, in the second half of the 19th century, had become one of the most heavily industrialised parts of the UK, as a result of the so-called Industrial Revolution. Furnaces were fired by coal and the level of pollution was very high (hence the name Black Country). I can certainly vouch for the pollution which was still present in the 1950s.

The decline

The Black Country's industrial development reflected a high level of innovation and enterprise, which had produced a galaxy of major and highly successful firms. It was, however, obvious to an even moderately perceptive observer that things were going wrong. Many firms which had established their reputations by innovation were resting on their laurels. Innovative founders of firms had often been succeeded by new generations of the families, who were happy to enjoy the benefits but lacked the vision, and will, to continue to innovate. Much manufacturing industry, in short, was definitely in decline, and that decline became ever more obvious over the following decades. Hence the received wisdom which I referred to at the beginning of this Letter.

The royal visit was a good reminder that things are not necessarily like that. The Marshall Group, for example, is still a family business, with the fourth generation of the family deeply involved, but it is still very much concerned with state of the art developments.

And the fact that the opening of the Institute for Manufacturing building took place during a visit to celebrate the very long history of the university of which it is a part is a significant indication that attitudes and approaches do not have to stand still or ossify. The nature of manufacturing is worlds apart from what it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution. It is worlds apart, too, from what it was like in the 1950s. Products are different. Design is different. How things can be done has changed beyond recognition. To remain in the forefront of research, and teaching, in these circumstances, it is crucial that the approach is international.

The opening of the new building, and the chance which it offered to speak with some of the enthusiastic, and strongly international, people who work there provided proof that manufacturing is alive and well.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at:


Cambridge Letter: In perpetual motionDecember 14, 2009