15 Nov 2011

Made in Britain: The future of manufacturing

Rolls-Royce is the poster boy for British manufacturing, but what is the future for the sector the government hopes can pull the UK out of recession? Business Correspondent Sarah Smith investigates.

Tonight at 7pm, in the second part of our Made in Britain special report, we are looking at the future of British manufacturing.

You might not be able to buy a British kettle any more but we are very good at making cars. Lots of people decry the fact that there are not any British-owned large car manufacturers any more. But we still make thousands of cars every day. And we could be at the cutting edge of new electric car technology.

I went up to the Rockingham Speedway to see some of the new designs in action and got whipped around the track in an exciting little British-designed sports car which had driven all the way from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina to prove that battery powered cars really can go the distance.

Dr Michael Lamperth, who invented the axial flux motor inside the car, is Swiss. He told me that he had come to Britain to develop the technology because he thinks this is one of the best countries in the world to invent this kind of thing. But he is worried it may never go into mass production because we are historically bad at getting our great ideas made into reality.

Paul Brandon knows this all too well. He has built an electric motorbike that does over 180 miles per hour – but he is worried his designs will be stolen. He has noticed Chinese industrial spies eyeing up his bike at TT races. They might start making them before anyone in Britain does.

Read more: Can manufacturing save the British economy?

There are plenty of larger, more established high tech firms flourishing in Britain. Rolls-Royce is still the jewel in the British manufacturing crown. And many other foreign companies like Siemens build very complex and expensive bits of equipment in the UK. When I visited a Siemens plant in Wales they told me they would build even more here if only they could attract enough qualified engineers.

Tempted by ‘silly salaries’ of City of London

The problem is that many of our mathematically minded young graduates choose to go make their fortunes in the City of London rather than put their engineering skills into practice. Even the young recruit building a water coolant generator whilst I was there told me he was sorely tempted by the “silly salaries” he was offered by some financial firms.

Lots of people told me they think British manufacturing has an image problem.

Lots of people told me they think that British manufacturing has an image problem. People assume it is filthy, noisy and menial. Young people don’t want to go into manufacturing because they don’t want to get their hands dirty. For the most part that has not been true for decades. The UK excels in areas like pharmaceuticals and aerospace which are clean and modern.

But there a few traditional manufacturers left – doing things the old fashioned way.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has been in business since 1538. They made the bells for Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. And they still have a full order book. The process of pouring molten metal into sand moulds didn’t look like had changed much since they made those bells.

The current managing director has been running the company for nearly 50 years. He says staying in business for that long is simple. All you have to do is make products that people want at prices they are prepared to pay for them. Sounds easy.

But he does not believe that the government is really serious about kick-starting a manufacturing renaissance. He feels that the manufacturing sector is tolerated not celebrated in Britain. And until that changes we won’t see the new jobs or economic growth that we are relying on manufacturers to provide.