Towards a UK Manufacturing Renaissance - RSA

Towards a UK Manufacturing Renaissance

Blog 8 Comments

  • Economics and Finance
  • Manufacturing
  • Fellowship

Manufacturing now generates less than 10% of the UK’s economic wealth. Yet indications are that manufacturing might be in for a re-birth, both in the UK and in other Western countries. This may be good news for the British economy, but broadly repatriating manufacturing might devastate some emerging markets. The questions are, what is driving this shift, why now and what do we do about it all?

As a starting point we have identified five significant manufacturing trends. At a recent online event, RSA Fellows discussed the issues and have identified ten ways forward. Please tell us what you think and join us in helping the RSA make a difference. 

Technical Trends

  1. Digital Technologies. We are in a new age of manufacturing. Often described as Industry 4.0, we have progressed from cottage industries, through automation and mass production, to a new era of digital design and production. This transition has taken place over the last 30 years, beginning with software tools like CAD/CAM and bolstered by the emergence of 3D printing and additive manufacturing techniques. The upshot is Design and Manufacturing processes are no longer separate activities, rather they are merging into a contiguous whole enabled by a ‘digital backbone’. Much like vertically integrated factories of the past, Industry 4.0 benefits from co-location, only now with incredible degrees of efficiency, flexibility, and waste elimination.
  2. Robotic Automation. The typical reason for outsourcing manufacturing is labour cost reduction. But if labour costs as a portion of total costs decline because of automation then other factors increase in relative importance. Robotic Automation has brought several industries, including clothing, back to ‘high-cost’ Western economies. Market proximity brings benefits like lower supply chain costs and better quality control, while getting closer to customers facilitates increased innovation.
  3. Data. With digitisation comes data, lots of it. Embedded data will be an attribute of every ‘smart’ object made, just as weight, strength, and costs are today. Detailed product performance data gathered in real world use, results in far better predictive models yielding more reliable, less wasteful products. Smart goods will gravitate to locations where the ability to analyse an endless flow of data can be taken best advantage of.

Social Trends

  1. Sustainability. Increasing transparency enabled by social media puts pressure on companies to do more to eradicate child labour, reduce environmental impact, and minimise corruption. Bringing manufacturing closer to home is one potential way to improve transparency and oversight: a move that (for better or worse) plays to nationalists in the UK and United States.
  2. Crafts. There is resurgence in long-dormant skills and crafts that could lead to a resurrection of abandoned market niches and new applications. This social trend may be a reaction to the technological trends identified above, but may still prove complementary. France and Italy have retained their traditional craft skills and as a result dominate the global production of hand-made luxury items. The modern UK craft movement recognises and encourages artisanal skills and is a key element in linking the Arts with a manufacturing and commerce continuum.

Any return to manufacturing in the UK will look very different from the last century. New jobs will be technical, highly creative, and require significant digital proficiency. Nonetheless, there will be fewer jobs as robots take up production. A re-born and expanded UK manufacturing sector will not save Britain, but may help balance the economy and give purpose and hope to many, especially the young. The challenge is getting leaders to take this opportunity seriously, to appreciate its potential and not reject it as either a wistful return to the past or as the next step towards a dystopian future for emerging economies.

What Next?

How might the RSA act as a catalyst for a new vision for UK manufacturing? A recent teleconference came up with a short list of 10 ideas:

  1. An RSA Manufacturing Challenge Medal – The RSA made its name with its Premium Award scheme and medals for innovation, so that might be a good way to stimulate an interest in our manufacturing future.
  2. An RSA Design & Manufacturing award - to recognize and encourage the convergence of the Digital Design & Manufacturing.
  3. There is plenty of investment for digital startups, but little for manufacturing. How can we stimulate digital investors to raise and broaden their focus and include manufacturing in their portfolios? How can we drive digital manufacturing convergence?
  4. Identify a project to stimulate a competitive modern manufacturing UK sector to include in the RSA Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing key theme. This would complement the existing work in impact and social consequences.
  5. Re-establish manufacturing as a career option – introduce it into schools via 3D printing, maker-spaces and other hands-on activities that value design and productivity,
  6. Directly supporting one or two manufacturing start-ups to stimulate interest generally, while better understanding the practical challenges of establishing digital manufacturing when skills and equipment are in limited supply,
  7. C21 Apprenticeships - re-define apprenticeships for C21 skills and opportunities rather than short-term employment,
  8. Re-invent the manufacturing finance model – finance models have not kept pace with digital manufacturing and are not focused on the future. What is needed to re-invent finance for C21 manufacturing?
  9. Reach-out to RSA Fellows in manufacturing to increase the base of interested fellows, maybe partner with industry bodies or companies.
  10. Explore the positive and negative potential of these trends from both the developed and developing world.

Do any of these ideas strike a chord with you? Can you suggest any other ways that the RSA could contribute towards society benefitting from the trends in manufacturing? We would really like to hear from you below or on the Fellows’ Forum. If we can generate sufficient interest, we plan to work together to progress some of the above ideas. 


Brendan Dunphy is a recent fellow who started his career in manufacturing in the 1970s before realizing that information technologies offered a brighter future. Today he is a business advisor based in Nice, France and spends his time helping firms and charities to adopt digital capabilities and advising innovative tech startups from Brazil to India and across Europe.    

Michael Northcott is a recent fellow based in Portland, USA. He has a long career in global corporate R&D and related functions and now engages with firms large and small to innovate and improve their collaborative capabilities.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Design is seen as cool and manufacturing not cool . As a designer I get inspired by manufacturing capabilities and the possibilities . Is there a way the RSA can facilitate a way to link product designers , especially new graduatrs, and manufacturers ? Hopefully this will bring the two sectors closer together and improve the image manufacturing as a career choice. Hopefully  knowing the capability of uk manufacturers would inspire them and also give a better understanding of materials and processes.  Indeed there are materials being developed that manufacturerd designers could use to make innovative sustainable products. Let's get them together !

  • Design is seen as cool and manufacturing not cool . As a designer I get inspired by manufacturing capabilities and the possibilities . Is there a way the RSA CAN  to link up  product designers , especially new graduatrs, and manufacturers ? Hopefully this will bring the two sectors closer together and improve the image manufacturing as a carers choice

  • I've had a long career in regulated engineering industries (heading design, manufacturing, quality, R&D departments), interim consulting, and academia.

    In the UK, for most sophisticated but extremely pragmatic manufacturers from 100 staff to 10,000s, the middle ground between the very basic support / grants/ training from local and national government, and the high-brow academic/ research council/ agency grand challenges is sweet spot for impact. The real "so what" that can entice investment in industry.

    Industry 4.0 (refreshed CIM) and robotics have been around for decades in one form or another, with little on-ground must-have innovations that tempt industry leadership to invest. When a minute of downtime at your automotive assembly plant can cost you a £40,000 fine from JLR, championing even a modest £50k investment in instrumenting lines (vibration, heat, noise etc.) to help predictive maintenance for better OEE is a real challenge for those of us heading engineering departments (your new fangled system is too risky!). Relatedly, I personally think too many journalists are writing nonsense about robotics and AI who don't know anything about the subject.

    In real manufacturing, complexity reduction (of all that connected data, as well as massive FMEAs/ project plans/ legacy production system coding etc etc), compliance and risk (litigation, again complexity of data and lines of code in ECUs and contemporary electronics), and aversion to innovation (in system, process, product and equipment) due to consequences of getting it wrong are very big issues for many.

    To overcome this, manufacturing needs a few dozen significant demonstrators showing benefits in cost, time, quality, and risk reduction for modest investment (not done in university labs- real world please) to allow the boards to approve CAPEX for investment. Decision-makers can then say yes to CAPEX (and not be the guineapigs to fail). Central government, research councils and institutions like the RSA have a role here.

    The "global best practice" set-ups I've encountered in firms from 10,000 to 150,000 staff generally are not great, partly due to massive local time-pressure in JIT plants. Innovation and IP are competitive advantages, but open innovation even with the same firm needs addressing. Perhaps a limited version of open innovation among firms across and industry (to address national or global grand engineering challenges), would help both widely, as well as stimulate internal improvements to the joined-up-thinking needed.

    • Thanks David. I think it worth exploring the idea of a high-profile open innovation challenge in conjunction with a few key partners. I think we need something like this to signal the desire for change and the willingness to engage all parties and create momentum.

  • You ask how the RSA might act as a catalyst for a new vision for UK manufacturing, and you mention new start ups and digital manufacturing. It says that Mr Dunphy turned his back on manufacturing as the future wasn't bright enough, he doesn't live in the UK, nor does Mr Northcott. I am struggling to see the real value in this, and how it is going to benefit those who work in manufacturing now.

    • Hi Jane. I'm not too sure what you are inferring with reference to my and Mike's location and careers but I can assure you we are both very much concerned about this issue and my career and personal choices irrelevant. However, I would be interested in your ideas as to how the RSA could benefit those working in manufacturing, including the above. PS All other fellows on the initial call that led to the ideas above, are based in the UK, most in manufacturing.

  • It's great to see these ideas. Personally, I feel that 3,8 & 9 - drawing together interested fellows to tackle issues of finance - would be a good way to build on work that my organisation (Central Research Laboratory) and entities such as the British Design Fund and Design Council Spark are undertaking to increase levels of investment and support for hardware startups.

    • Thanks Mat. Let's follow-up on this. I'll be in touch.