Chinese car group bets its future on green taxis

In a cavernous plant on the outskirts of Coventry, a massive bet is being placed about the sort of vehicles that will be trundling around cities and along motorways over the next 30 years. The factory is the result of a £325m investment by a big Chinese automotive group and adds up to one of the boldest efforts in the UK to create a new generation of electric cars. The site is run by London Electric Vehicle Company, a UK-based company owned by Geely, a fast expanding group controlled by the leading Chinese entrepreneur Li Shufu – who is known for his spare-time hobby writing poetry, as well as for a relentlessly global approach. A key part of Li’s plans for LEVC is to make the Coventry plant a centre for development of new types of electric car, aided by recruitment of technical specialists, many of whom are likely to start at LEVC either as apprentices or engineering graduates. The  investment stands out against the decision by Sir James Dyson, one of Britain’s best known entrepreneurs ,to spurn the idea of starting an electric car plant in the UK, choosing Singapore. Among the 750 employees at the site – which opened in 2017 – is Pauline Dumont, one of the factory’s 200 development engineers. The 26-year-old Belgian, pictured at the start of this story,  joined LEVC in 2015 after finishing a postgraduate degree in automotive engineering at Cranfield University. “I was excited at coming to work here – the job gives me the chance to help create a completely new product starting from zero,” says Dumont. “It’s been great being part of a team doing something special. I feel I have learned a massive amount

By |June 1st, 2019|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

3Cs point the route to success in 21st century industry

The 3Cs - code, collaboration and capability – are the keys to separating the winners and losers in global manufacturing. Code describes the software important in linking networks of products. Collaboration covers the relationships connecting companies with suppliers, developers and users. Capability encompasses employee skills. The 3Cs grabbed attention at the latest in a series of annual "manufacturing summits" held by the Financial Times. At the latest gathering, held in London in October 2018, the topics for discussion included autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and the challenges of Brexit. Pictured is a taxi coming off the production line at a UK factory run by Chinese-owned London Electric Vehicle Company.The plant shows how collaboration between different businesses can lead to useful benefits. First, consider code – the lines of software that act as the “glue” between interlinked machines. The key resource here is data. Every time a manufacturing process takes place, or a finished product interacts with the outside world, an item of data is created. In the past, most manufacturers have failed either to collect, store or process the data- in many cases they've done none of these things.  Now, the position is changing as businesses realise that the data - backed up by the software that keeps track of it and uses the data to make judgements - can help them to improve. "Everyone [in manufacturing] is a software company - it's just that some don't know it yet," was one phrase heard during the FT conference. Extracting data from manufacturing processes can help raise revenues and profits  Driverless cars offer examples of where data and products connect. An autonomous car interacting with other vehicles and objects around it is an illustration

By |October 16th, 2018|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

Innovation champion who was a hidden force in electronics, football and the arts: an appreciation of the life of Eddie Davies

  Eddie Davies, who has died at the age of 72, was a resolute and imaginative businessman who made his mark in three seemingly separate areas: electronics, football and cultural institutions linked to science and technology. In electronics Davies will be remembered for his key role in building up the Isle of Man-based Strix from a fledgling business in a niche technical area into a world leader. Davies is pictured here with the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Peter Marsh. In football he was instrumental in turning the illustrious Bolton Wanderers Football Club into a key force in the English Premier league, arresting several years of decline. In the arts and sciences, Davies’s support through generous gifts was immensely important to organisations such as the V&A Museum in London and Kew Gardens. He is pictured below at a Bolton match. Strix is a British success story. It has used specialised knowhow in metals technology to become the world leader in the quirky yet important field of kettle thermostats, devices that cut off power when electric kettles boil and stop the devices becoming a safety hazard. The company’s key invention is a modification of a technical device used in the 18th century by British craftsmen to make clock springs, later used during World War Two to create electric thermostats to stop flying suits overheating. Thanks in large part to Davies’s acumen, these odd beginnings were fashioned into the base for a global business. Like many mid-sized engineering companies in Britain, Strix is a “hidden champion” in a product field so narrow and specialised that it's ignored by the multinational giants. In the 1970s kettles were predominantly employed in the English-speaking world for making tea. Today the

By |September 21st, 2018|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

Networks and niches create twin track to success

The head office of Blaze in an old industrial building in London may look unimpressive – but it’s at the centre of a web of relationships that connect the small bicycle accessories maker with collaborators spread globally. Blaze is among the exponents of the manufacturing network, an idea growing in importance as production companies particularly those in niche fields step up ways to link with others. A young company with just over 20 employees, Blaze is a pioneer in novel lighting for bicycles. Its best-known product is a new form of “forward looking” laser illumination that warns motorists a bicycle is moving towards them and so cuts accidents. Emily Brooke, the company’s founder and chief executive, pictured above, is a regular visitor to China to check out key component producers. She adds: “We use Japanese batteries, some of the components [in our electronics] are Japanese or Korean, the laser is German and some of the optical components are Taiwanese.” But Blaze’s interest in relationships goes well beyond manufacturers’ decades-old pre-occupation with finding good parts suppliers.  Like many companies, Blaze has constructed what amounts to its own ecosystem of collaborators and partners – in Blaze’s case in the burgeoning global bike industry. The sector has mushroomed in recent years thanks to increased interest particularly among young people in urban cycling, and now encompasses thousands of mainly small businesses in both manufacturing and services. As well as keeping close to some of the big LED light source producers such as Nichia of Japan and Germany’s Osram, Blaze connects via meetings and digital links with a range of The rapid move towards bike sharing schemes in many cities has triggered a burst of entrepreneurial activity diverse

By |April 30th, 2018|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

UK electronics businesses thrive as slimmed-down specialists

Over the past 30 years the whole of UK manufacturing has become increasingly a collection of small to mid-sized companies making specialist goods in low volumes. Yet few sectors illustrate this trend more vividly than the business of producing electronics and electrical goods. As recently as a few decades ago the sector was populated by companies that were large and well known, if somewhat unwieldy in structure and erratic in the way they were managed. In place of the likes of GEC, Plessey and ICL that made products including white goods and telephones familiar to just about everyone, these companies' equivalents today are businesses excelling in niche areas of electronics in fields that in many cases are barely recognisable. The companies that are the leaders today are generally a lot smaller than the giants of the past. And as  Britain along with most other high cost nations has retreated from most consumer facing sectors of electronics, the fields where the UK remains strong are mainly involved with making products bought by businesses. Illustrative of such goods are esoteric items of hardware used for testing products in factories or on the laboratory bench, and complex components that are never seen by the ordinary man or woman and end up embedded inside items such as machine tools or aircraft. An example of Renishaw, the world's biggest maker of touch sensitive probes used in metal cutting machinery, whose chief executive and founder Sir David McMurtry is in the photo below. In addition to products made by Renishaw and similar companies  – a description of which would bring a blank stare to the face of the average person – are a few specialist consumer items  where the UK can claim to having a

By |November 27th, 2017|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

Japan’s robotic global champion

In a hall in a big aerospace plant near São Paulo, four yellow robots perform a series of snake-like manoeuvres as they clean and paint the exterior of giant fuselages being made by the Brazilian aerospace producer Embraer. The robots are among roughly 400,000 of the machines installed worldwide by Fanuc. The Japanese company is the world's biggest robot producers. Over several decades it has built up a near godlike status among admirers. The picture here shows a Fanuc robot during a demonstration at an industrial fair in Germany. Holmes Osborne, a US financial commentator who publishes GuruFocus, a newsletter, says:   "Fanuc is the best robotics company in the world, bar none.  If what everyone is saying is true, that the world is to be run by robots, Fanuc will have a ring side seat and is the stock to own." Another view comes from a senior executive at a big Japanese machine tool company: "They [ Fanuc] have a strong record on innovation. They stay close to customers and always seem to be pushing in a new direction." Fanuc last year had sales of Y536bn (about $5bn) with more than 75 per cent of revenues coming from outside Japan. Its shares have risen appreciably over the past year and the company's market capitalisation stands at just under $40bn, 10 times higher than US Steel and roughly four times bigger than Marks and Spencer. Behind Fanuc's stock market record is partly the perception that robotics will become increasingly important as technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and smart sensors amplify the powers of robots and other pieces of automation hardware. Armed with new capabilities robots could for instance start to appear in large numbers in the home, for such uses as

By |November 17th, 2017|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

How China can build brands

Goodbaby is a Chinese manufacturer of children’s  “utility” products - push chairs, infant car seats and the like - with a growing reputation. With 11,000 employees and seven research centres in Asia, the US and Europe, the company dreams of establishing a name that resonates as strongly as Coca-Cola or BMW. Much the same is true of Chinese equipment giant Sany - which thinks it's on the way to cementing its global brand through the purchase of Germany's Putzmeister concrete machine maker. One of Putzmeister's truck-mounted machines is pictured above. But for all China’s progress in creating some big and powerful companies, observers are divided as to whether Chinese groups such as Goodbaby can create global brands that compete with the dominant corporate giants. By forming an impression in people’s minds, brands make it easier for companies to sell their products and services, whether to individuals, businesses or governments.  The stronger the recognition – and the more countries where the impact is significant – the greater will be the impact on revenues. For the past 70 years, US companies have led the way in brand building, followed by businesses based in other English-speaking nations and Europe. For all Japan’s economic surge since the 1950s, many of its top companies (excluding a few outliers such as Toyota) have yet to really make their mark in establishing global monikers. In recent years, China has made its presence felt, thanks mainly to the rise of a handful of internet, telecoms and retail leaders. The question now is whether China is likely to continue in this direction. Of the companies behind the world’s top 100 brands, according to rankings by the WPP advertising group, 54 are from the US, 14

By |November 17th, 2017|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

What listed giants can learn from private businesses

Escorting his visitor past an array of expensive machine tools, Damon de Laszlo explains why he has avoided seeking a public listing for his engineering company. "I'd have to start justifying my spending on investment and innovation to a board of directors," he says. "And they might be a pain in the neck." Mr de Laszlo is disdainful of many public companies that he says are run in a woefully short term manner. "If I didn't spend £1m to £2m a year on equipment and other capital investments I'd increase profits significantly, but in the longer term the company would fall apart. The inhibition at board level [in many public companies] is enormous." The blunt speaking Mr de Lazslo (pictured above and below, with one of his youthful employees) is chief executive and owner of Harwin. The company based near Portsmouth in southern England. It's a global leader in a niche area of electronics - making tiny connectors for plugging together circuitry in a range of products from aircraft control systems to fire alarms.  Harwin makes its connectors - built up from collections of wires and precisely machined metal and plastic components - in 50,000 varieties. Of its revenues last year of nearly £19m, 60 per cent was exported. Mr de Laszlo reckons Harwin is on course to reach annual sales of £30m in the next three years. Mr de Laszlo and his company are at the sharp end of the debate about whether private companies run by families or stable groups of investors can perform better than the familiar stock market-quoted business where shareholders can - and sometimes do - switch in and out of ownership continuously. The discussion is particularly pointed where the

By |October 6th, 2017|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

Schools promotion of engineering ineffective and wasteful

Britain does a poor job in conveying modern views of engineering to young people and encouraging more of them to choose it as a career, according to a hard hitting assessment of the decades-old struggle in Britain to update public perceptions of the discipline. "The lack of engineers in positions of influence in society is mirrored by a lack of understanding of the importance of engineering and the role engineers play, compounded by our inability to communicate that engineering is exciting," says an authoritative report by a top barrister and civil engineer. In the study Prof John Uff highlights "the importance of marketing [of engineering related subjects] in addressing misperceptions and prompting enquiry" but says this is inadequately addressed in many schemes operated either by the engineering profession or educational groups. "STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] options are, for some young people, loaded with perceptions of limitations," the report says. Uff lays much of the blame at the door of Britain's 35 official engineering institutions – of which the three biggest commissioned his inquiry. The institutions are said in the study to be "inward facing, elitist and insular" and "do little to engage with the wider engineering community or with society at large". The professor singles out for rebuke the promotional body EngineeringUK. "Serious criticisms have been voiced as to the performance and outcomes achieved by EngineeringUK in its educational activities, which are criticised as ineffective, particularly the campaigns to inspire school children to take up STEM studies… The UK remains woefully behind international competitors in recruiting potential engineers." The report says: "Allowing for the fact that EngineeringUK has only been operating since 2010, the question still arises why, despite some two decades of

By |October 6th, 2017|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments

Britain climbs the world manufacturing league table

Britain has improved its position among the world’s top manufacturing nations, moving up the league table to its strongest position since 2008 The UK was the world's eighth-biggest nation by manufacturing output in 2015 – the most recent year for which internationally comparable data are available – with just over 2 per cent of total output, according to calculations by Made Here Now based on the latest figures from the United Nations' statistical database. The numbers underline the relative strength of Britain's position in world manufacturing, even in the face of the rapid advances over the past 20 years by developing nations led by China, which claimed the largest share of world manufacturing in 2015 followed by the US, Japan, Germany, South Korea, India and Italy. "This performance reflects the renaissance that manufacturing is currently undertaking through a consistent focus on innovation, research and development and high-value skills," said Terry Scuoler, chief executive of the EEF manufacturers' body. Made Here Now plans to highlight the opportunities ahead, focusing especially on the potential role for younger people, whom many companies say they want to recruit to develop skills and technologies in fields such as digital factories, artificial intelligence and 3D printing. While some industry experts fear that the UK's planned exit from the European Union will weaken British manufacturing, others believe that Brexit provides the opportunity to boost the sector, perhaps helped by the government's much vaunted new industrial strategy. The UN data provide a snapshot of different countries' relative strengths in manufacturing output, registered as shares of total value-added production calculated at 2015 dollar values. The figures provide a unique way to compare the performance of countries since 1970. In 2015 world manufacturing output came

By |February 3rd, 2017|Categories: Observations, Opinion|0 Comments