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Lighter, smaller, stronger

It doesn’t really matter whether you agree with the need for the population to live greener or not; as a manufacturer, you have to anticipate and meet the needs of the consumer, and the global political agenda now supports objectives for carbon neutrality within this generation.

In the same way that the development of the internal combustion engine did away with steam power, which, in turn, killed off the horse and cart, the writing is now on the wall for petrol and diesel power. 

As technologies and trends have changed, successful manufacturing companies in ailing supply chains adapted their products and manufacturing processes to anticipate the arrival of the ‘new’ technology. Those that didn’t, failed. 

For example, a lesson from history. My hometown is Walsall. A town that grew rich on the supply of saddlery and related leather goods to riders and carriage drivers and manufacturers across the globe. 

It was once by far the wealthiest town in the Midlands and thrived even further on the back of 20 years of war in Europe in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s when everything in every army either travelled by horse power or on foot. 

When the railways came, the then town fathers resisted it, the proposed ‘London and Walsall railway’ became the ‘London and Birmingham railway’, Walsall’s saddle trade and its prosperity waned as it got left behind in the movement of globalised mechanisation, while Birmingham, the upstart that became known as ‘motor city’, thrived. 

What we see now is a similar sea change in the way in which transport and the respective manufacturing needs to change. Or fade away.

Much has been written on Industry 4.0 and the need for robotics, additive manufacturing, data analytics and the like. All positive of course, and we have advocated for the manufacturing industry embracing these new technological advances ourselves. 

What is important to manufacturers though, is meeting the needs and wants of customers, and the successful ones develop products that they know their customers are going to need and want, even before they do themselves. 

Who, like me, failed to realise the benefits of an iPad when they were first released? Battery powered vacuum cleaners anyone? 

Whatever process of propulsion is used to move people and goods around in future, it will need to be ‘clean’. Therefore, it is likely to have more limited sustainable power with regard to capacity and longevity, at least in the medium term, than the internal combustion engine. 

Therefore, there is a real drive for manufactured parts in the supply chain to be lighter and, in some cases, smaller, enabling the engines that move them, to carry them easier. It goes further. Even goods outside the transport supply chain will need to be transported to market. Therefore, these too will need to be subjected to a constant challenge to size and weight.
In the latter part of the last century, the stock answer would have been to make everything out of plastic, from components to packaging. Furthermore, as we now know, the world’s oceans have long suffered and the oil from which plastics are made, is running out anyway. 

The challenge has to be to harness the I4 technology and the know-how in our educational establishments to develop products that use less materials yet maintain integrity in terms of strength and durability. 

In the 1960s, the US Apollo programme spinned out a wealth of consumer products, borne out of necessity for, amongst others, lightness, strength and convenience. Through collaboration, determination and innovation, that programme went from a presidential decree to success in just 7 years.

How much more can we achieve now when we have more computing power in our domestic washing machines than existed back then? 

This applies to bolt and fixing manufacture and power supply design, as much as to car manufacture – perhaps, even more so. 

The smart manufacturers are therefore looking beyond Brexit and working with colleges and universities; using schemes like KTP and KEEN to tap into the graduates that they are turning out. They are making maximum use of their R&D tax claims and patent box structures to feed into development programmes to make products lighter, smaller and stronger.
They are collaborating with other companies, sometimes even competitors, to create what the market is going to need in the future rather than waiting for it to come. Even BMW and JLR are working together to develop electric car motors for example. 

They are embracing the imperative for change and its effect on the products that they need to produce to survive and thrive into the future.
This therefore, is what I4 is really all about. It’s much more than machinery. It’s a global challenge to anticipate and meet the needs of the next generation. The UK has an excellent ‘head start’ in getting to the front of that challenge in that we have the experience of the past, a global reputation for quality and an establishment that has repeatedly, and continually, produced successful and world-beating innovators and entrepreneurs.

John Dudley


The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.