Manufacturing: Changing Perceptions

18 Jun, 2024

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Manufacturing: Changing Perceptions

Despite the UK being the 8th largest manufacturer in the world and employing more than 2.5 million in the industry, UK manufacturing is often portrayed in a negative light.

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Despite the UK being the 8th largest manufacturer in the world and employing more than 2.5 million in the industry, UK manufacturing is often portrayed in a negative light. Joined by Stuart Whitehead, Founder of Jefferson and Co-founder of FactoryNOW, our host Alex Edwards aims to uncover the reasons behind this brand image, how the UK compares to other markets, and how we can proactively champion UK manufacturing.

Items referenced in this episode:


→ FactoryNOW

→ Networking: just a buzzword or pivotal for manufacturing success?



→ Why is UK manufacturing portrayed in such a negative light? (00:48)

→ Where do we thrive in the industry? (02:38)

→ What is the importance of marketing in manufacturing? (05:30)

→ How has the industry changed when considering the profile of the workforce? (08:12)

→ How are other markets promoting people and skills and how does the UK compare to them? (14:15)

→ What do the next 5-10 years look like for the industry and where would you like it to go? (17:21)

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities they represent or Protolabs.

Episode transcript


Alex Edwards 00:05

Hello and welcome to the Protolabs inspirON exchange podcast, the show for engineers and designers to connect with industry leaders and academics to learn more about what's happening in the industry, how to innovate, and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Today, I’d like to focus on UK manufacturing and why it is so often portrayed in a negative light despite being 8th in global manufacturing rankings. I’m interested to discover the reasons behind this brand image and what can be done to change it. I’m joined by Stuart Whitehead, Founder of Jefferson Group and Co-founder of FactoryNOW, both of which take a proactive approach to connecting stakeholders and championing the British manufacturing sector. Great to have you on today Stuart!


Stuart Whitehead 00:44

Thank you Alex, absolute pleasure to be joining you toward and really looking forward to the podcast.


Alex Edwards 00:48

So I suppose we will get straight to it! In your opinion, why do you think UK manufacturing is portrayed quite negatively in public discourse?


Stuart Whitehead 01:01

I used to think there was an agenda with mainstream media, and I think possibly there still is, but I think more over the last few years a lot of it is ignorance. A lot of these media organisation have reached out to me, and Jefferson, and our partners at MTD, to learn more about manufacturing and its impact. They are pleasantly surprised, as you say, that the UK is the 8th largest manufacturer in the world, with more than two and a half million people working within the industry. I think because sometimes bad news sells, and that’s been the legacy media, which is a polar opposite of what happens on social media. It’s quite interesting, saying that bad news sells a newspaper, but if you put a factory closure on LinkedIn/X/Facebook, it won’t get the engagement. Whereas if you’re talking about a new factory, new jobs, new investments, expansions, export wins, it will. I think there’s obviously a lot of change in the media landscape so I’m hoping it is changing but if you speak to kids, they’re getting their information second hand from parents or teachers or from mainstream media, they don’t believe that we make anything anymore. I think it is up to people like us, these kind of podcasts and using social media to re-educate people and hopefully inspire them to join the industry.


Alex Edwards 02:38

It’s interesting isn’t it because social media often has the misconception that it spreads negativity, that there can be challenges around mental health, which are all true but when we consider the content that we put on there within manufacturing, it’s always the positive stuff that tends to get more traction. Sticking to those misconceptions then, I know you’ve mentioned that people think we don’t make things anymore, what examples spring to mind of positives in the industry or where we particularly thrive?

Stuart Whitehead 03:14

If you look at the trends over the last couple of years in terms of the huge investment in the automotive industry, the automotive industry is going through seismic change, we know why the investment is needed to support battery and lightweighting developments. BMW, £600 million, Nissan, a billion pound, Bentley, well over a billion pounds, Jaguar Land Rover, billions of pounds. So collectively I think the SMMT, which is the trade body for automotive, it’s just north of £20 billion which was announced last year, which is the most in history in any given 12-month period. The last few weeks, Aston Martin have created hundreds of jobs, Jaguar Land Rover are creating hundreds of jobs, and the list goes on.

I think sometimes, going back to the mainstream media, I haven’t got a massive issue with them it’s more a frustration really, but I know how many reporters went, a few years ago, to Honda plants that closed in Swindon and people were camped out there making a story about it. It’s very close to my heart Honda because I spent quite a number of years there and I know a lot of people and so forth, but that kind of media scrutiny and that kind of focus or spotlight isn’t on if somebody is building a new factory or building a new facility or creating hundreds of jobs. It’s just a fact and a few people have noticed it and Jefferson, as you say, with our colleagues in MTD, we’ve been trying to re-address that balance really. I tell everybody we are biassed, we don’t cover, we don’t promote, we don’t talk about negative news because unfortunately there’s others, the BBC and others, that will do that for us. So we are biassed as well, I’m not virtually signalling or anything like that, I know I’m biassed because I know that other people will cover any negative news in the industry.


Alex Edwards 05:30

It’s an interesting point and I suppose that is where you guys come in, which is championing that positive news and making sure that there is a balance, and part of that process is the marketing. I know it’s something that we discussed offline and something I hope we can bring to life here, which is the importance of marketing and how marketing functions and departments are within manufacturing businesses maybe compared to others? And there’s a massive role there in terms of if you want to change your brand image, it’s about how you market yourself. Is there anything you see there in terms of things that we could maybe improve on as a sector?


Stuart Whitehead 06:07

I think so. In my experience, British Engineers and Manufacturers, the very best ones are very modest and they’ll loathe to kind of self-promote or to be seen to be boasting, and it’s almost a “well yes Stuart that is what I do” and I’ll say “well that’s okay, that’s what you do and it may be the norm for you, but I think that’s an extraordinary story” or what an achievement you’re exporting to this country or a new line, a new process, and so forth. I think sometimes that kind of natural modesty can be an issue, not saying right across the board, but as I say the very best Engineers and Manufacturers I’ve ever met are modest people and they’re not out to self-promote. I think they don’t always recognise when they’ve got a story or something that would be intrinsically interesting to other people outside their company and they probably, possibly, need a bit of help with that really.

On the social media side, in terms of manufacturing, there’s loads of positive examples of people doing it well and there’s also quite a few examples of people not doing it so well. I think sometimes people think, oh we’ll just run an advert, I’m used to running an advert in a magazine so we’ll just convert that and run it on X or LinkedIn and so forth. You’re trying to sell to somebody before you have formed a relationship. I think people need to look at it slightly differently and think about it a little bit more long term. Hopefully that will change and I’ve certainly seen a spate the last few weeks, I don’t know what it is, but quite a few manufacturers advertising for marketing executives, digital marketing people and so forth, so maybe the corner has been turned on that.


Alex Edwards 08:12

Yeah it’s interesting, I think the pennies finally dropping and it’s that marketing departments, whilst there is an effect on sales enablement and supporting the sales function, but it’s also more long term as you mentioned and about building the brand. I think in order to do that, you’re going to have to invest in the right people and that tees me up quite nicely for the whole skills angle. It’s been spoken about continuously, but I suppose there are skills in production but then also in supporting departments like marketing and other areas of the business that sit around the manufacturing organisation. If we begin to move into how things have changed, how the industry’s developed in recent years, do you think the profile of the workforce is a talking point?


Stuart Whitehead 09:03

I think some manufacturers are doing very well to promote the diversity and the changes that have happened, but, and I suppose it’s the same in any industry, for whatever reason the majority of young people, and I can only talk personally, don’t believe there’s a role in manufacturing or engineering for them, thinking about the old stereotype of getting my overalls on. They say I’m not an engineer, I’m not a mechanic, but do they know how many different roles there are within manufacturing? And I think we’ve communicated that particularly well. I think manufacturing is seen as you go there, you make something, you use your hands, you use tools or a machine, and you go and make something. If that doesn’t float your boat or that’s not your aptitude, there isn’t a role in manufacturing for you. Over the last couple of years though, like I said all the support functions like marketing and digitalisation, which we’ll come on to, additive manufacturing, there are so many opportunities and roles for people within manufacturing and I don’t we’re getting that across at all.

We talked offline about an automotive OEM in the past would compete with an automotive OEM or maybe a Tier 1 supplier for skilled people now if you look at what’s happening, I mean I talked about Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) recruiting 250 people, they are electrification engineers, software engineers, hardware engineers, they’re not necessarily competing with another automotive OEM, they might be competing with Google, with a tech company that younger people are more familiar with. We’ve got to get that message across and social media is the answer. LinkedIn and X to an extent but certainly Instagram and TikTok, where the audience is. We’ve got the medium, we just need to get the messaging right.


Alex Edwards 11:17

Yeah I 100% agree and it’s like you said, breaking away from that modesty so when there is a positive we champion it, and also access, thinking back to previous times where manufacturers would do tours to get people in and show them, building up that understanding of how it works and seeing the work profile and thinking “I could work here”. Also, like you said, the idea of manufacturing, I’ll make something with my hands, but with the digitalisation trend the idea that people are going to in and it will be a mucky trade and it will be very hands on, it’s not so true anymore. It’s very different and it’s about showing people that and opening it up to them.


Stuart Whitehead 12:06

I think that’s the point, young people have to see it before they decide which GCSEs to take because it almost determines which path they are going to take. So how are they going to see it? We used to organise factory tours all the time, manufacturers were brilliant at opening their doors, organising coaches to schools, providing a tour around the factory. With the curriculum being so narrow and tight, insurance, and a few other things, it’s becoming very difficult to do. We’re very fortunate that a lot of manufacturers donate content to us and we can almost do a factory tour in a school, where we can actually show people in the classroom.

There’s no point giving, and I’m not being disrespectful here at all, an 11 year old 5 pages of A4 to read. They are used to going on TikTok, on Instagram, and they’re a lot more savvy with it than I am, but within one minute you can show something absolutely extraordinary, certainly with robotics and automation. You can show them this is what is going on 5 minutes away from where you live, this is what we’re making, this is how we’re making it. It’s so visually appealing. For me, that’s the answer because I think in the past we’re trying to get middle-aged people like me to talk to try to sell the concept or try to get STEM engagement and I’ve not seen it work. What’s the point of repeating something that isn’t working? We should be using apprentices, 16, 17, 18 year old apprentices that are already working in the industry. Use them. I’m only a few years old than you, this is my background, come and join me, this is how I did it. We need those champions within businesses and there are some very good and very talented people out there that are communicating that, but we probably need more and we need to help amplify their voice.


Alex Edwards 14:15

I couldn’t agree more, seeing is believing a lot of the time and you need to see yourself represented or even get into actually understanding what it’s like. I go out on to the Protolabs shop floor and I could be so busy doing the day job on the office side that I forget what’s there, and it’s only when you go out and you see the technology and some of the things you’re up to you, you then think if only people understood this more and more people would want to be involved.

So in that sense, we’ve focused on people and skills in the UK but what are they doing differently abroad and in other markets? How do we compare to them and what can we learn from them?


Stuart Whitehead 14:59

I’ll talk in general terms, I think there’s a high regard for an engineer, I think in a lot of other countries an engineer is on a par with a doctor in this country, it’s seen as a profession. Years ago I used to do recruitment and one of the issues that I found is that to attract people or make the role more appealing, and again I’m not being disrespectful to anybody in the sector because if I could do it, I’d be doing it, but a lot of roles that were maybe called a technician in the past are now called engineers and it’s kind of diluted. It frustrates properly qualified engineers that everyone’s kind of grouped together. So I don’t think there’s that kind of regard for an engineer and you do see that in industry because, looking at German and Japanese industries, the engineer tends to invariably become the plant manager/factory manager, whereas in the UK sometimes its more onus on volume rather than the process, so sometimes it’s a production manager or production type person that would go into the more senior role within the company. I think that’s one big difference really, again it’s not reality it’s perception, so we need to rectify that.

Also, and I’ve got no proof at all about this, I think we’ve probably got a more embedded classes system in the UK than maybe other countries where if you seem to be working with your hands or you’re doing something practical, it’s because you failed academically, which couldn’t be further from the truth.


Alex Edwards 17:21

Which is amazing, isn’t it? I’ve been in manufacturing and engineering my entire career, within marketing and communications roles, and I’m around these people every day and they are some of the smartest people I know and I wouldn’t have a prayer of trying to do what they do. It’s strange if that feeling is there. But like you say, everything that we do in terms of breaking down those stigmas and breaking down the barriers and actually representing the industry in the right way, it can only make a positive difference.

In terms of going forward then, I suppose it’s a bit of a two-fold question, what do you think the next 5-10 years look like and also how would you like it to go?


Stuart Whitehead 18:12

I think things are changing dramatically because, not going into any kind of politics, but post-Brexit, again going to back to the recruitment side of things, we’ve always had this kind of reasonably cheap, on-demand labour and it’s not there anymore. So companies are being forced to look at automation and the integration of different processes – remote, digitalisation, machine monitoring, whatever it may be. One of my friends has run an industrial temporary supply company for many years, he’s an engineer and it frustrates him. Some of these companies he’s worked with for years, if they ask him is this the right thing to do for your business I will be honest and say no. But they want to give him a £1000,000 a year to supply 20-30 temporary people a week. He said he’s not a recruitment guy, he’s not a businessman, he’s not an engineer, he’s a drug dealer. They are addicted to this. These are his words, but I think through necessity that kind of cycle is going to be broken.

We’ve always compared unfavourably really with mainland Europe in terms of adoption of robots and so forth, and I think that will change over the next few years. In terms of the marketing of it, the communication, as I said the media landscape is changing dramatically so I think manufacturers have an opportunity now to take control of it, I really do, and there are trade bodies like MAKE UK and others that are doing a really good job. For whatever reason, I think sometimes we can be guilty, like a lot of people, of selling to the converted. An echo chamber really where we all agree and we are all nodding dogs. But if we say, how are we going to market this industry? How are we going to grow? We have 2.6 million people in the industry at the moment, how are we going to get that over 3 million? How are going to get the over 4 million? We’re eight in the world, recently overtaking France, how we do we get to 7? 6? There has to be some kind of national industrial strategy and that is the key element of this. There has to be some kind of concerted approach between government and industry, but it can’t be government led, it has to be industry led because the government, with all due respect, don’t understand industry in my opinion.


Alex Edwards 21:12

It’s interesting we had an earlier episode of our podcast series where we spoke about the importance of collaboration and networking and like you said, there’s some brilliant things being done and if some sort of government focus went on to it, it would still take people from within the industry to pull it in the right direction rather than work in silo. To your point about trying to grow the involvement, I think that’s where we have to take a risk also as marketers and try and use different channels and tap into different audiences instead of just going to the same areas.


Stuart Whitehead 21:51

Absolutely and we have seen this work. At the beginning of the pandemic something called the ventilator challenge was launched, within weeks the industry came together and they started pivoting to make ventilators. All these companies that, in the natural order of things, may be competitors came together. The government were really focused on it and it happened, it was just an extraordinary feat. It kind of raised the profile really of what we could do in this country and I was really hoping that would be a spring board, with all the horrible things that happened during the pandemic and all the negatively and loss of life, for me there was a kind of silver lining almost – is this going to bring us all together? A national strategy and support for UK manufacturing and so forth, but unfortunately that opportunity that came from adversity wasn’t really taken. But for a short period of time it raised the profile of what we could do collectively and I’m being a bit idealistic, but we just need to get industry, government and trade bodies working together.


Alex Edwards 23:14

It certainly shows that the potential’s there and it’s food for thought. Keep doing the great work that you’re doing and if everyone pulls together and keeps championing manufacturing, particularly UK manufacturing, then we can turn it around.

Thank you for joining us today Stuart, unfortunately that’s all we have time for. Until next time, see you soon.


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