Expert Interview: Discussing the Landscape of Manufacturing with GTMA CEO Alan Arthur

07 June 2024
GTMA

The GTMA is a UK-based trade association representing leading companies in precision engineering, rapid product development, toolmaking, tooling technologies, metrology and other critical manufacturing-related products and services.

Founded in 1942, the GTMA has worked to connect its members to their customers for almost 80 years. The organisation represents a vast cross-section of the manufacturing industry, covering sectors from aerospace and defence, automotive and medical technology to name but a few. Its member companies cover dozens of specialisms from Additive Manufacturing and CNC machining to Software and Specialist Welding.

Having qualified as a Chartered Engineer in 1997, GTMA CEO Alan Arthur is an industry veteran with decades of experience under his belt. We sat down with Alan to discuss the issues facing his members, emerging trends and the future of British manufacturing.

Photo Courtesy of GTMA 1
Photo Courtesy of GTMA

How did you get into manufacturing and engineering?

I’m a lifelong engineer. At school I excelled in technical subjects, I fared very poorly at creative subjects so I was always going to lean towards some kind of manufacturing/engineering type profession. 

I started life as a civil engineer as a structural engineer. I went to university to study manufacturing engineering. I ended up as a Chartered Engineer through the IET with a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nottingham.

 

What is it about the sector that keeps you engaged?

Well, I mentioned at school that I failed abysmally at the creative type subjects poetry and art and things like that. However, my creativity is really through that technical know-how: fixing things, inventing things, and designing things, have always been a big motivation for me. 

As I’ve moved through the various roles, after a mix of having lectured at university, having worked for entrepreneurs, having run a company for five years as a consultant and done all manner of things in between, I now head up the GTMA which is a trade association for the UK manufacturing supply chain. 

 

Over the course of your career, you’ve worked for the Aluminium Federation, the Confederation of British Metalforming and now the GTMA. What is it that draws you to these kinds of organisations?

I have a very low boredom threshold. I need a lot of different interesting things to keep me occupied. With the privilege really of representing a sector or an industry you get heavily involved in the detail of what your member companies are doing, what they’re struggling with, what help they might need and you can translate that into the engagement that you have with other organisations and companies. 

In my current role, myself and my colleagues work very hard to connect our member companies to potential customers. We do that through understanding the sectors, the different engineering disciplines, and who the OEMs are. 

We deliberately get involved with those larger companies to then understand where the opportunities exist for the supply chain and we make the introductions where appropriate. 

At the GTMA we are a very dynamic small group of people. We are burning shoe leather – in the old terms – to generate opportunities that then the companies are in a position to try to exploit. It might be generating background knowledge of emerging technologies such as the small modular reactors being developed by Rolls-Royce. Somebody’s got to make the components and they should be our members. 

And so, we need to understand the context, understand projects, understand timings and understand where the entry points are and then translate those to our members and then hopefully they will then generate opportunities and work off the back of it. 

Photo courtesy of thestandingdesk u3 788 lEVk unsplash
Photo courtesy of TheStandingDesk on Unsplash

Thinking about the issues that your members are facing, what common themes are you seeing? 

There are definitely common themes. If you work anywhere in manufacturing or creating products, you’re generating a carbon footprint and that’s something that’s under scrutiny.

Specifically within the UK, manufacturers have been under a great deal of pressure related to energy costs and there’s no secret about that. I think that households are suffering, but you need to realise the volume of energy that’s being used by manufacturers is immense, so that’s a huge problem. 

That’s providing an incentive to be more economical about how you use energy. But there’s also a need in the supply chain expressed by those larger companies to drive down the emissions to drive down the carbon footprint so you have to make careful choices about materials, processes, machine settings or having the latest machines which are a lot more efficient to manufacture with. 

All of these things culminate in a huge pressure on manufacturers to be lean, very careful in their selection of processes and materials, and to be very careful in their waste management. As soon you make something you’re generating waste, be that waste energy or be that waste materials. You need to try and find a closed-loop solution for any waste materials that you’re generating. 

However, you look at it, the manufacturing industry is doing pretty well. I saw a report this week that said that [the United Kingdom] is the fourth biggest exporter of goods. That’s amazing! And it should be shouted from the rooftops. Manufacturing as an industry, right across the board, generates a vast income and lots of jobs either directly or indirectly. 

 

One theme that I see in the publications and literature is the idea that manufacturing is often undervalued in terms of its economic contributions. What do you think are British manufacturing’s strengths?

Without a shadow of a doubt the level of innovation in the UK and free-thinking design, we’re renowned for it. If you look across things like the gaming industry or whether you look at manufacturing it’s the same principle. It’s people being creative and putting those creative ideas into practice.

Photo courtesy of ThisIsEngineering on Unsplash
Photo courtesy of ThisIsEngineering on Unsplash

In the GTMA’s latest publication, there’s a claim that British manufacturing has a reputation for being quite slow to adopt new technologies, is that something that you’re finding?

It’s my feeling that it’s in the American psyche to have a new technology and shout about it. It’s almost in the UK psyche to keep quiet about it, so maybe we get different readings about that. I would venture that we are innovators but we are slow adopters of new technologies for sure. 

If I take a case in point, everybody knows about additive manufacturing or 3D printing. I did my PhD in that area in the early 1990s and it is still seen by most manufacturers as a new technology. 

We have a small number of additive manufacturing companies in membership at the GTMA. However, what we are seeing is that many of our members have access to additive manufacturing in-house. So they will be making their jigs and fixtures using additive manufacturing in order to make one-off pieces very effectively but they don’t shout it from the rooftops.

But overall there is a reticence to invest in new technology and throw money at it.  And I think part of that comes from a lack of government support mechanism because if it goes wrong, it goes wrong big time as soon as you buy an expensive bit of kit. 

Typically companies in the UK are looking for an ROI of less than three years which indicates to you that business planning is something of that order. Most companies will have a business strategy, there will be a twelve-month strategy there might be a three-year strategy there might well be nothing beyond that. And that is pretty much short-termism in the global case of manufacturing. 

Other countries would have business planning for five, ten years and the investment would reflect that. A bigger investment means that you can spread out that return on investment because you’ve got the financial backing for it. It’s not necessarily the case for UK companies. 

 

How does that “short-termism” affect how UK companies operate?

 

UK companies are more agile, they are less likely to invest massively for a long-term return. 

They are more likely to invest at a lower level for a short-term return and that keeps the companies more dynamic, it makes them more responsive. However, the shocks that can be felt by UK manufacturing can be very very abrupt and it can take effect very quickly and we see that in industrial cycles. 

Every so many years, you’ll find that there is a cycle of companies going to the wall and manufacturing right now is doing okay. 

 

Long may that continue! Is there anything that you’re excited about in the future of manufacturing or, on the other hand, anything that you’re concerned about?

I’ve talked a little bit about the positive side of this dynamic, agile industry that we have that’s manufacturing. But it’s very difficult to predict what the future will look like for UK manufacturing. 

Without a shadow of a doubt, economies of scale means that larger companies fare much better in the long term. We have a very long “dragon’s-tail” of companies as a supply chain right down to one person working from their shed. That’s great in a way, much more dynamic, but it’s precarious. 

We’ve seen the global shocks exerted, for instance, by the ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal not so long ago. That was a massive shock in terms of manufacturing because people suddenly realised that “Oh if we’re sourcing our manufacturing and our components from China all the time, we’re very vulnerable.”

And then you’ve got other matters which are ongoing, sadly, at the moment in terms of conflicts around the world. They again affect the supply chain massively and affect the demand. At the moment, there’s a huge demand globally and nationally, for defence products. 

Particularly, medical care for people who are, sadly, wounded. That side of it is a huge, rapidly growing industry, because of what’s going on around the world. Also, defence as in vehicles and communications networks which have had to be enhanced to track and prevent strikes on personnel. 

There is a huge effort going on there at the moment, and it’s leading to a lot of contracts being available. And that translates across into other emerging sectors such as space. Space and telecommunications at the moment is a huge booming area. A lot of the companies who have been supplying into aerospace and the other sectors, for instance, are now seeing those opportunities come through in space. 

When you are exporting space and communications you want the technology to remain in your country because that gives you the technical advantage globally. So you don’t want to be sourcing that technology from outside your national boundaries. You can see why the UK space industry is getting quite excited about the opportunities that are out there, the satellite technology and global communications and the UK is well-placed to take advantage of that. 

Photo courtesy of Louis Reed on Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Louis Reed on Unsplash

These unexpected global events can be disruptive to manufacturers and they might also find an increased demand for certain products. 

It’s more important now than ever for even the smaller companies to be very very well-read in terms of the context of the industries they’re supplying into, looking for different sectors that they’ve never touched before which provide opportunities. 

The global COVID pandemic threw up all sorts of opportunities for manufacturers be it from the headlines of ventilators to the manufacture of PPE and other medical devices that have come off the back of that experience the world’s had. Take the medical industry. There’s a medical event happening this week in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham that we’re attending for two days around medical technology. And there’s a lot of activity around there, the UK is one of the global leaders in this technology.

But new sectors will emerge, I mentioned earlier the small nuclear reactors. These are, basically, made like a Meccano or a Lego set they will be made in a factory and they will be made on skids which are big frames. The frames go on the back of a truck, they’re taken to site and they’re pieced together on site. And that’s how you manufacture your nuclear reactor. 

Now the technology exists, it exists in nuclear submarines. It’s just the same technology with the manufacturing challenge of actually making components and working out how to modularize it so that you can make everything in the factory. So it will be made just the same way our cars are made, our bicycles et cetera. It’s commoditising nuclear power stations which is amazing really to think about and those opportunities are coming around. 

 

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. 

I’m very very happy to talk up manufacturing, UK supply chain and engineering overall. If we can improve our skillsets, if we can get more people recruited into engineering it will blossom. It’s still there and it’s doing very well and it should be a little more glamourised and it should be talked up.

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