19 February, 2018

Keep safe

28 April, 2016

Within various manufacturing and engineering disciplines, as with many other professional pursuits, there are situations where the possibility of injury, or even death, increases. When working at height, it is of course important to adhere to a series of measures to ensure as best as possible that an unfortunate incident doesn’t occur. These measures should include, among other things, a general risk assessment based on the precise environment, equipment and circumstances involved, appropriate supervision, ensuring the work is only undertaken by trained personnel, and making sure that only regularly maintained equipment that is fit for the task is used.

The competitiveness factor

01 April, 2016

Manufacturers are motived by many business drivers. These are likely to include R&D and innovation; seeking to offer customers something that other companies cannot provide – whether that’s just a small but important tweak to something that is already established on the market, or something that is based more on ‘blue-skies’ thinking. A business could also have strong environmental aspirations – keen to set a high standard for other companies to follow in order to help mitigate the deleterious effect industry can have on our planet. But, of course, one of the most non-negotiable drivers has to be competitiveness. This is critical not just from the point of view of simply continuing to survive, but also in order to ensure a company is a strong and established player in its chosen market sector – producing quality goods while also having the ability to scale-up to meet increased demand for its products or services as and when necessary.

Train to maintain

25 February, 2016

As fluid power and motion control equipment becomes more sophisticated one might think that a need for a suitably advanced level of staff training is a non-negotiable. In the case of maintenance, for example, if a company doesn’t have the personnel to keep equipment in tip-top working condition it can hardly be surprised when it suffers costly and inconvenient periods of unpredicted downtime.

Take cover

01 December, 2015

Regardless of which profession people work in it is reasonable to assume that they will take the odd sick day off each year – although, as one might expect, figures are likely to vary depending on the sector in question. In the case of engineering, it may or may not come as a surprise to hear that over the past five years this sector has been ranked fifth among 25 different industries for the most days off sick with 21.29, in comparison to the national average UK of 15.27. More than 2 in 10 (21 per cent) engineering workers have sustained injury or become ill because of their job, which resulted in having to take time off work, according to a recent online study conducted by OnePoll on behalf of insurance company ‘There’, which surveyed 2000 employed and self-employed UK workers in different sectors. The engineering sector statistics were also found to be above the national average for sick days over a career (37.19 versus 34.97). Those who had been off for over a month stated that on average they were actually off for over three and a half months in total.

Unlocking the ‘productivity puzzle'

30 October, 2015

From time to time, forward-thinking companies need to make carefully considered business decisions concerning how to take their enterprise to the next level. Do they plump primarily for an investment in more machinery or other types of technology? Or do they prioritise focusing on improving the workforce’s skillsets? Well, recent research suggests that the latter strategy is currently gaining the upper hand among many medium sized manufacturers (SMEs) – particularly in London and the South East. Investing in the skills of their workforce appears to be a main priority for SMEs in this region, according to the latest Manufacturing Barometer – produced for the Business Growth Service.

Time for a green re-think

01 October, 2015

I would like to think everyone recognises the importance of doing their bit for the environment. After all, we live on a planet that has during its 4.5 billion or so years of existence come to have developed the delicate eco-system that we all rely on for our survival. Over a relatively miniscule period of time, man has made the transition from a reliance on hand-made tools and artefacts, and, for those that could afford it, the common vehicular benefits of horses and the like, to the post-industrial revolution epoch– with all its modern conveniences that have to sit alongside consequential environmental challenges. It is therefore perfectly understandable that any responsible government should check its nation’s industrial carbon footprint by putting in place a series of measures that help to address the dynamic between pollution levels and environmental vulnerability.

Conquering gender stereotypes

21 August, 2015

Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Frank Whittle et al may often the first names that come to mind when asked to reference some of history’s most famous engineers and inventors. However, it is important also to remember that woman engineers have been enhancing all our lives with their ingenuity alongside their male counterparts for generations. Sarah Guppy (1770-1852), for example, was instrumental in designing Britain's infrastructure and developed a number of products for domestic use. In 1811 her first patented invention involved a way of making safe piling for bridges. Victoria Drummond (1894-1978) was the first known female marine engineer in Britain and the first woman member of Institute of Marine Engineers. Aeronautical engineer, Beatrice Shilling (1909-1990), corrected a defect in the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine during the Second World War. In the US, Emily Roebling (1803-1903) became the first woman field engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge after husband Washington Roebling could no longer work after becoming paralysed.

Call for change

05 June, 2015

Some 40 years ago Great Britain made the decision to remain part of the European Community. Today, as political leaders debate about the potential for referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, heated debate championing an abundance of ‘In’ and ‘Out’ arguments has understandably become de rigueur daily reading in the National press. So, as a hypothetical exercise, let’s consider how a vote could fall if a referendum were to be held tomorrow? A recent poll by Survation showed that a potential referendum on EU membership is currently balanced on a knife edge, with a referendum tomorrow predicted to be 51 per cent in favour of leaving versus 49 per cent wanting to remain a member – more or less a statistical dead heat. It is possible that the recent debates in Parliament and unrest in the Conservative Party have slightly dampened enthusiasm for leaving, perhaps by drawing attention to the possibility of future renegotiation of membership terms.

Redressing the balance

29 April, 2015

The business benefits of women serving on the board of directors has long been well-proven. Research by Catalyst back in 2013 found that Fortune 500 companies with women on their board of directors achieved tangible business results such as: higher return on equity (on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53 per cent); higher sales (on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 42 per cent); and higher ROI (on average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 66 per cent). And as David Atkinson, head of manufacturing, commercial banking SME, Lloyds Bank, recently commented: “As manufacturing continues to play a pivotal role in aiding the growth of the British economy, the onus remains on the industry to encourage the development of skilled workers. That includes creating a more diverse workforce with a greater female representation. Offering access to inspirational female role models remains vital to achieving these objectives, helping to eliminate old stereotypes, and providing evidence of what young women can achieve by pursuing their ambitions.”

Playing the export game

02 April, 2015

At first sight it would appear that, overall, there is an encouraging amount of good news concerning the UK economy. For example, according to trade figures for January 2015 published this month (March) by the ONS, UK trade deficit on goods and services was £0.6 billion in January 2015, down from £2.1 billion in December 2014. Also, between December 2014 and January 2015 the volume of exports rose by 2.2 per cent, while the volume of imports fell by 4.0 per cent. However, as David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce recently commented, the scale of the decline in the deficit is exaggerated by volatile factors, in particular the substantial fall in oil imports as a result of plummeting oil prices. However, there are also positive longer-term trends. For example, in the three months to January the trade deficit almost halved compared with the previous three months, and was the smallest three-monthly deficit since 2000.

Train to gain

05 February, 2015

The benefits of apprenticeships cannot be ignored. The advantages to companies are manifold. For example, apprenticeship schemes can be the perfect tool in order to recruit new staff, or to re-train or provide further skilling to existing staff. Apprenticeships can also address the need for specific skills within your business, and ensure you have the right knowhow in place for anticipated future demands. They can also prove to be a perfect method of attracting young people with forward-looking and innovative ideas. Apprenticeships can also be highly effective in boosting morale and retaining a workforce that feels valued and well looked after. Moreover, the advantages to apprentices cannot be underestimated. Young people on this type of scheme can better cultivate a sense of purpose, knowing that they possess skills that will lay a firm foundation for future gainful employment that could sustain them, and stimulate their creative imaginations, throughout their lives. Fortunately, there have continued to be positive messages from UK Government, which would appear to recognise these undeniable benefits. The Government has outlined the next step in apprenticeship reform, making the pledge to give employers direct control of funding for the training of apprentices. Publishing the response to The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Funding Reform Technical Consultation, the Government has outlined its continuing commitment to making England’s apprenticeship system the best in the world. Skills Minister Nick Boles pointed out that December 2014 saw the start of the 2 millionth apprenticeship since 2010. This, he remarked, was an important milestone in the Government’s long-term economic plan. “If we are going improve and expand our apprenticeship programme further we must put employers in the driving seat and give them control of both the design and funding of apprenticeships,” he said. The next step is for Government to work with employer organisations and others to develop a funding model that is, in Boles’ words, “simple, transparent and easy for employers to use”. Boles added that, while putting employers in control of apprenticeship funding is a non-negotiable part of the reforms, it is clear from the feedback received that further detailed design work is needed before there can be a final decision on how this would work in practice. The funding reforms will continue to be developed alongside the trailblazers programme – giving employers control over the design of apprenticeships. Over 1000 employers, of all sizes, are now part of the trailblazers scheme in industries including engineering, legal services and health and social care. In December 2014, 22 new standards were published, with employers leading the design of apprenticeships in data analysis, aircraft maintenance and construction management. As Neil Carberry, CBI director for employment and skills, recently commented, world-class apprenticeship system “is critical to the future prosperity of the UK, so the continued commitment from Government to business leadership is a positive step”. However, he added that the Government and businesses now need to get their heads together to hammer out how the system will actually work. In the current economic climate where many companies have an opportunity to move to the next stage of growth and development, this could be the ideal time to take-on more apprentices. However, as Carberry points out, this can only happen if the system is simple and flexible enough to meet the needs of smaller businesses, not just the larger ones. In the same vein, Dr Adam Marshall, executive director at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), also stresses businesses need greater clarification on how apprenticeship funding will work in future, with a focus on keeping the system simple. He added that, at the same time, they must work to give companies who are ready a greater say in how apprenticeships are designed, delivered and paid for. In essence, UK businesses need crystal clear funding guidance. If this is provided, the potential benefits to individual companies as well as UK Plc cannot be underestimated.

Poor education and advice must not let down tomorrow’s engineers

04 January, 2015
It may not come as a surprise to learn that the parents of thousands of talented teens offer their full support in order for their young ones to have the best opportunity of becoming the UK’s future engineering talent. Indeed, according to new research announced to mark the start of the recent Tomorrow’s Engineers Week, three quarters of parents would recommend a career in engineering to their children. Moreover, nearly half (47 per cent) of secondary school children would consider a career in engineering, with 29 per cent of them being girls. However, it would appear that many young people lack the support in schools needed to fulfil their career ambitions, and only a third (34 per cent) say they know what to do next in order to become an engineer. Disappointingly, schools may not have the information needed to support the engineering ambitions of their students. More than half (56 per cent) of GCSE science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teachers surveyed have been asked for advice about engineering careers by their pupils in the last year, yet only a third (36 per cent) felt confident giving such advice. The findings reveal further disparities between teacher attitudes and pupil ambitions. Some 42 per cent of teachers believe pay is the most important factor to pupils when making career choices, when in fact only 15 per cent of pupils cite pay as most important. Choosing a career in something that they are interested in is the biggest influence for teens’ career choices (42 per cent), and parents agree (24 per cent). In a separate study of young engineers under 30 by EngineeringUK, a quarter (23 per cent) of those surveyed said they didn’t consider engineering as a possible career choice when they were at school or college and 15 per cent were discouraged by a teacher. Some 42 per cent of those that didn’t consider an engineering career would have changed their mind if they had received better careers advice, information or inspiration and 21 per cent if they had known what engineering careers involve. Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK, recently stressed that engineering makes a significant contribution to UK GDP growth and engineering companies will have over 2.5 million job openings between 2012 and 2022 across a diverse range of disciplines. “We’re delighted to see that parents are so supportive of their children’s engineering ambitions at a time when their talents are much-needed; however, the findings reveal a worrying lack of school support for young people,” he said, adding that EngineeringUK urges schools to use the Tomorrow’s Engineers careers resources and website to inspire their students. The Tomorrow’s Engineers Week research showed that team work, working in a creative or inventive environment and bringing new ideas to life are what young engineers enjoy most about their job. Three quarters (76 per cent) of then felt positive about how quickly and how far they will progress in their careers. Two-fifths (41 per cent) enjoyed a pay rise within the first year of employment and 19 per cent got a promotion or increased responsibilities within 6 to 12 months of starting. Leading the industry charge is Shell, which has announced a three-year investment in the Tomorrow’s Engineers schools outreach programme of over £1 million. Chairman of Shell UK, Erik Bonino, said the energy company wanted to support and inspire a new generation of world-leading engineers and scientists who will fly the flag for British innovation. “The school children of today can create the technical solutions of the future, but only if we show them the vast range of opportunities that STEM subjects and careers can offer,” he said. As Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has observantly said, whether it’s the cars we drive, the houses we live in or the clothes we wear, engineering is everywhere. This being the case, we simply cannot permit poor support at school to hinder what is potentially a vast pool of talent and ambition just waiting for the chance to grasp a successful, lifelong career – A career that can not only prove to be rewarding and enriching for the individual, but also for the rest of us through greater invention and innovation.

Speculate to accumulate

24 September, 2014

British manufacturers are ramping up the amount they spend on a wider range of more sophisticated assets to determine their business strategies. This is a key finding in a new report by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation and Lombard Asset Finance. In addition to investing an average of £1million each year on plant and machinery, the report illustrates that British firms are increasing essential and complementary investment in ‘intangibles’. These include staff training, recruitment, R&D, software and marketing in order to clinch a competitive advantage. However the survey also shows that, despite the majority of companies saying they plan to maintain or increase their expenditure on new plant and machinery in the next two years, this is only at moderate levels and, mainly to replace obsolete technology. A significant number of companies also continue to struggle to raise required levels of funding. According to EEF, raising the UK’s level of investment will be essential in tackling its longstanding position as an underperformer compared to competitors. Looking forward, one in three companies are planning to invest the same on plant and machinery over the next two years as they did in the previous two, although these spending plans are moderate in scale. Nevertheless, the EEF/Lombard report shows 70 per cent of companies plan to increase their investment in staff training and recruitment, with one in six targeting a significant increase. Furthermore, three in five companies plan to increase expenditure on marketing and branding and a similar proportion on R&D, highlighting the need for government to continue to support applied research. The increasing role of intangible investment is highlighted by the fact 60 per cent of companies plan to increase investment in three or more categories. Investment in these business priorities is becoming more important for more than half the companies in our survey, but the value of plant and machinery investment is greater for a balance of 25 per cent manufacturers. Where companies were cautious about investing, uncertainty over demand was given as a primary reason by one in three companies, with a similar number citing constraints on internal finance. One in eight companies identified the availability of external finance, the majority of whom were SMEs. While some supportive measures have been introduced, such as the extension of the R&D tax credit and temporary increase in the Annual Investment Allowance, Government could go further by putting in place the following EEF recommendations: 1. Setting out a clear vision for the economy towards 2020 and the policy and spending priorities that will achieve cross government growth objectives. 2. Increasing the diversity of the finance landscape by creating a more competitive and dynamic banking environment, especially for SMEs. 3. Ensuring the British Business Bank has a long term future and is able to invest in new and innovative funding options such as patent growth capital, mezzanine finance and those supporting supply chain expenditure. 4. Implement a consultation on the UK capital allowance regime to ensure there is a competitive and stable regime in place by 2016. 5. Maintain funding for the Technology Strategy Board in real terms over the next spending review period. 6. Increase funding for the Catapult Centres. 7. Maintain the stable and broad definition of qualifying expenditure for the R&D tax credit. Solving the problem of long-term hurdles regarding acceleration in investment growth will require concerted and continuous efforts to bring down the two main stumbling blocks to more ambitious investment plans; the need for more confidence and greater levels of funding. An individual company’s roadmap for growth is largely something that is discussed in the boardroom. However, without Government providing the right environment and incentives for appropriate levels of investment to take place, hurdles to making the most successful growth plans will remain. Government, the next move is yours. The survey was conducted between 30 April and 14 May with 173 companies responding.

Minding the gender gap (August 2014)

02 September, 2014

The recently announced A-level results show a welcome increase in the take-up of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, although the gender gap still remains a concern, according to EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation. Verity O’Keefe, education policy adviser at EEF, commented that, with more and more vacancies to fill, manufacturers will be breathing a sigh of relief that the take up of STEM subjects at A-level has increased for the fifth year in a row. “Without a doubt, students who have achieved top grades in these subjects have significantly boosted their employability and their chances of enjoying a successful and sustainable career,” she said. However, O’Keefe added that the overall increase in the take-up of STEM subjects disguises a mixed bag. While the EEF welcomes the fact that the number of girls studying physics has increased by 4.7 per cent year-on-year it is mindful that there is still a significant gap between the number of boys taking this subject compared with girls. Earlier in the year, a report from the Science and Technology Committee took a similar tack, arguing that universities must do more to retain women in scientific careers. Andrew Miller MP, chair of the Committee, said it was “astonishing” that women still remain under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline. “It’s time for universities to pull their socks up,” he insisted. In his view, some universities are doing a good job at improving working conditions for women scientists, while others are not. “The system of short-term contracts is hugely off-putting for many women scientists,” he said, adding: “More standardisation is required across the whole higher education sector and that is why we have called for Government, universities and research councils to review the academic careers structure, so that talented women, and men, can have more stable career pathways.” However, according to statistics from Cambridge Occupational Analysts (COA) earlier in 2014, campaigns to boost girls’ enthusiasm for science and engineering are beginning to bear fruit. The research showed a rise in the proportion of female pupils who are actively considering university courses in STEM subjects. Interestingly, the study shows the proportion of girls expressing an interest in civil engineering, general engineering, combined sciences, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry and biochemistry has shown a bigger increase over the past seven years than their male counterparts. COA said the figures provide additional evidence that efforts to redress the imbalance are having an impact, as suggested by the findings of a recent study gauging interest in engineering among 11-14 year-olds, commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). The COA survey asked around 20,000 sixth formers in hundreds of schools across Britain completing Centigrade, a university choices questionnaire, which subjects they were interested in studying. Responses collected over the past seven years reveal a significant rise in interest among female pupils in the vital STEM subject areas of civil engineering, general engineering and combined sciences. The percentage of girls expressing an interest in civil engineering rose by 10 per cent between 2006/07 and 2012/13 – double the percentage rise of male pupils. General engineering was considered as a possible choice by over a fifth (22 per cent) of female respondents last year – a 16 per cent increase compared with 7 years ago. Over the same period, the proportion of boys expressing interest in the subject rose by just 5 per cent. Figures for combined sciences show a 19 per cent rise in the proportion of girls expressing enthusiasm for the subject, compared to an 11 per cent rise for sixth form boys. As EEF’s O’Keefe states, “we’re heading in the right direction”, however what is really needed is a concerted effort between Government, industry and the education sector not just to continue driving students into STEM but to also close the gender gap as tightly as possible.

Move to the next level with IT (June 2014)

20 June, 2014

Sometimes, companies become so engrossed in their daily core competencies – for example, designing, making or distributing things – that they stay a step or two removed from points of leverage that could propel them to the next level of growth. Take information technology, for example. Things have moved on at an almost overwhelming pace in the IT world over the past few years; we now have everything from cloud computing and related Software as a Service applications, social computing, big data and mobility devices that make communication and the relaying and accessibility of date so much easier and quicker whether you are inside the four walls of the warehouse and shop floor or out in the field. This technology can improve a business’s operations at so many levels; it can make a company’s activities faster, more accurate and more cost-effective; it can even improve a business’s standing in the eyes of the end customer due in some cases to marked improvements in customer service and communication concerning, for instance, the current status of an order. The CBI’s director-general John Cridland picked-up on this theme during a speech he gave at a recent technology event where he addressed an audience of 200 businesses comprising some of the UK’s best-known and most entrepreneurial companies to debate the global impact and influence of technology on business. At the #DaisyWired14 event held Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire, Cridland began by calling on the Government to give more help to growing businesses, saying that mid-market companies have often been overlooked by Government policy in favour of small businesses, even though they were the true engines of future economic growth in the UK. He then called on the entrepreneurial community to take advantage of the ubiquity of technology available to deliver a steady growth period. “Some businesses, with a turnover of £100 million to 200 million, have the potential for gazelle-like growth and could be worth £500 million in about five years’ time,” he said. “They are our true national champions – but we don’t have enough of these companies making that growth spurt in Britain. We need to concentrate on nurturing the £20 million, £40 million or £100 million turnover businesses so that they become the future national champions we can be proud of.” Cridland continued: “We cut off the support for businesses when they get to around £10 million turnover, but why are we doing that? We need to focus on this ‘forgotten army’ of entrepreneurs and help them make that progression. This medium sized group makes up less than 10,000 of the 3 million businesses of the UK but it is worth 23 per cent of the UK economy.” The director-general went on to draw a contrast with Germany, which he said had managed to support the continued growth of a much larger number of mid-size businesses, contributing significantly to real strengths in its economy. “All industries have the potential, particularly in the exports market, to make this decade the UK’s, just as the previous one belonged to Germany,” he remarked. “We need to nurture these companies with capital and management systems to help them break into the markets around the world which want to buy our products and services, but are not particularly easy to get into.” Cridland also called for the term SME to disappear, claiming that it now describes an obsolete concept. Small businesses and growing businesses that have become medium-sized businesses have different policy requirements. By taking a leaf or two from the German business support model, and by harnessing the huge potential offered by the types of modern information technology solutions cited above, many UK businesses have a very real opportunity to grow into the future national champions Cridland speaks of. Taking a little time out to survey the types of IT technology currently available could reap dividends you never know were possible. Happy shopping.

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