Debate: Smarter manufacturing

Manufacturing is the lifeblood of Lancashire’s economy – but we need to get smarter at it. With Boost Business Lancashire, we brought together our panel of experts to Cotton Court in Preston to discuss ways of doing just that.

How can manufacturers become more productive?

Melissa Conlon: The biggest opportunity is to digitalise, to look to the future and ensure that they’re adopting robotics and cobotics – robots that work with people. There is a big agenda for humans to be working alongside machines. It’s accepting that they have to move forward.

We’re working with companies from the very smallest to large tier one partners. One company we’re working with makes jewellery and is looking at additive manufacturing so she can test pieces. Digitalisation is applicable to all manufacturers.

Peter McOnie: It is more than applicable, it is absolutely vital. It is not just about the larger SMEs, it is about the supply chain supporting them. We need to dig down. This needs to be at all levels, the demand needs to roll down to make that supply chain as effective as possible.

Steve Wilkinson: It is critical that companies start to think differently and that’s where it starts for me, with the people and a culture change and identifying that need for change. It is asking what is possible and what is realistic. You can then start to understand how you get from where you are to where you need to be.


  • Chris Russell – Manufacturers’ Alliance
  • Melissa Conlon – AMRC
  • Steven Kenny – RCS Doors
  • Andrew Leeming – Boost Business Lancashire
  • Peter McOnie – Manufacturing Made Smarter
  • Andy Pickard – Lancaster University
    Centre for Global Eco-Innovation
  • Miranda Barker – Chamber Low Carbon
  • Steve Wilkinson – Manufacturing Growth Fund

Chris Russell: We have a peer to peer support group and we find the businesses that have a clear idea of what they want to achieve commercially and are then able to align their operational priorities around that.

We steer them to make sure they have an  understanding of where the business could be going.There is a high level of trust; it is a forum where people feel very comfortable sharing and know there is no other agenda other than helping each other.

Melissa Conlon: We are seeing a lot of companies that are allowing open access and have open access demonstrators. They are willing to co-operate and open their doors and show what they have implemented within their own sector.

Seeing it in action is a real positive and the job we have is to encourage that collaboration. We have a lot of companies that we need to take on that digitalisation journey. In some cases, it might be a very, very tiny step forward before they’re ready to dip their toe in the water.

It is asking what is possible and what is realistic.

Steven Kenny: It is interesting what is being said about robotics, that to be more competitive and remain on top of the market you need these skills. We manufacture doors, which is extremely labour intensive and although I’m keen to know more and like the idea of robotics, it is a completely new set of skills.

All our business is based on picking up that  piece of metal and turning it into a finished product. We’re being asked to completely change that to learn a new set of skills which is, at my age, quite scary.

Andrew Leeming: It is about how we inspire people to feel differently. We’ve got some fabulous equipment in the universities, in the AMRC. What we need to do is get manufacturers to come in and have a play, see how it works.

We need to be better storytellers and to look at what is working brilliantly and we need businesses to be the best ambassadors they possibly can be for the new technologies they are adopting.

We need to really start becoming a real showcase. I want people to look at Lancashire from the outside and see that ‘actually we’ve got it sorted’. We’ve got a great manufacturing heritage, what we’ve got to do is make sure we keep moving with the times.

Chris Russell: A common theme with many small manufacturers is that they don’t know what’s possible. It’s very difficult to make such a brave move when they don’t know how to find someone that has gone through that journey.

Peter McOnie: The question is how do we reach businesses that aren’t coming to us, how do we give them the message?

Miranda Barker: We need that connectivity down the supply chain as well as that positive pressure and encouragement to say, ‘Come and have a look at the people the next tier up that you’re supplying. Come and work with your peers.’