Can technology bring back manufacturing jobs to the UK?

Technology, in its many forms, has long been a scapegoat in the on-going decline of manufacturing jobs.

The automated car assembly WOULD bring about the instant overnight death of car manufacturing jobs. The internet WOULD put an end to the magazine trade. There are hundreds of scenarios like this, but this constant forward march isn’t something to be feared – it is something to be understood and adapted to. The UK manufacturing industry is always a hot button topic whenever an election year rolls around. Politicians are quick to point out how they and their party will return the flagging industrial sector back to its former glory. But is it really as bad as people perceive? Well, things such as outsourcing and the recession have hurt the sector, but it still accounts for 52% of the UK’s exports, and employs around 2.5m people. It may not be what it once was, but UK manufacturing is far from the sinking ship some would have you believe.

But can things be returned to the so-called “Good old days”, that we in Birmingham, very much the industrial cornerstone of the country for decades, remember so fondly? Maybe they can, and the possible catalyst may be a surprise – the old enemy, technology. But how? Well there are all manner of ways that new, emerging (or resurging) technologies are creating new jobs in manufacturing. Some are quite direct. There is a force (and trust us, this is an appropriate word for it) looming on the horizon. 10 years ago, computers were the only gateway to the internet. Eventually, phones and other devices became interfaces for the world wide web. And now, in 2014, quite a lot of things are capable of connecting – watches, clothes, dog collars, etc. This progress is all heading towards one destination, branded by experts as the “Internet of things”.

This may seem like a vague moniker, but it’s actually a very good descriptor. The internet of things won’t be made up just by computers and smart phones – EVERYTHING will be connected to everything else. You could be in Australia, and your phone would be able to tell you who is sat around your kitchen table back home in the UK, and what they are eating. And while this may sound like the starting point for The Terminator becoming a documentary, there is reason to believe that this will be far from a Skynet apocalypse. It will bring the world closer together, allowing interconnected technology to help shape our World for the better. What has this got to do with UK manufacturing? Everything! If it becomes the norm for your furniture, food, and even your children to become “things” in the internet of things, manufacturing is likely to become a lot more complex. New skills will need to be learned and implemented in a lot of different sectors where said skills weren’t necessary before. That has the potential to create thousands of jobs in all lines of work.

manufacturing jobs to the UK?

There are other forms of technology that are paving the way for new jobs in a more indirect manner. “Big data” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of information that can be used to inform business decisions. It used to just include internal business and market numbers; cold, hard facts that only tell you what you have done previously, with only vague projections for the future. That is not what Big Data is today. Now, it takes into account social media, and it’s various components (messages, photos, video etc.), to provide a better scope of market trends (even if this is still guess work to some extent). If implemented well, this could mean a big bump for manufacturing. Imagine a company can now get a pretty good idea of where the market they deal with is going. They can change their plans accordingly, which in turn leads to a more efficient and cost effective business. If profits rise, and market share rises, that logically leads to an increase in jobs. While Big Data doesn’t provide a fool proof plan, it gives businesses a much better chance of succeeding, and thats good news for all industries, not just manufacturing.

The ideas above are big sky ideas. They both carry the potential to bring wide sweeping change to the industry. But technology is working to create jobs on a smaller scale too. Solar energy, by way of solar panels, has been an eco-friendly alternative to electricity for years, but in today’s ever increasing “go green” culture, it is becoming more commonplace. solar energy can bring the same benefits as Big Data in a way, because they help to cut down on energy bills, which frees up money to spend on workforce. Other technologies can be something of a double edged sword. 3D printing is an entirely new skillset, which requires specialists to be brought in. That’s great news for those guys who can operate the machinery, but it’s also bad news for the sculptors and craftsmen the technology is replacing. The hallmark of having something hand made will always carry weight, but if machines can create a product equal in quality but in half the time, it will naturally lead to a change in the market.

But this relates to my previous point. Industries change constantly. It’s a necessity. But the worry over costing jobs shouldn’t mean that growth and progress is stunted. Those savvy to the change can adapt to it. Those people worried about being replaced by 3D printers could take steps to learn the technology, or diversify their skills so that when the machine arrives, they aren’t made redundant immediately. And the best thing about this new technology is that it requires capital, infrastructure and education to make it work.

This isn’t the case of outsourcing a menial and simply manufactured product to less developed countries. These technologies cost a lot of money. For now, they require investment from developed nations, giving us in the UK an edge.  It may seem far fetched, but this next wave of technology could lead to something of a boom period. We just have to embrace it, not fear it.