By Jon Card
Success in manufacturing depends on world class branding and innovative design – but this is too often overlooked, a leading academic and former business leader has claimed.
Beverley Nielsen, director of corporate affairs at Birmingham City University, says the recent success of Midlands-based manufacturers such as Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and Aga Rangemaster has relied heavily upon the work of the creative industries.
But she claimed policymakers and education bosses have failed to sufficiently recognise these collaborations and calls for a rethink of how we define manufacturing.
Ms Nielsen said: “I began to look at this four years ago and what soon became apparent was that there wasn’t much focus on the way that branding and design drives competitiveness in manufacturing.
“The combination between design and branding is really crucial for companies that want to sell to the public.
“Brands are what drive value and what can drive the West Midlands region forward.
“People buy products not just because they need them but because they say something about them as individuals. Companies that understand that are the ones which will succeed.”
Ms Nielsen, who was previously the managing director of Fired Earth, a part of the Aga Rangemaster Group, says her experience there helped her understand how much design and manufacturing were linked.
“During my time as managing director at Fired Earth it became apparent that we had to be really good working with new businesses in a range of innovative and creative sectors.
“Manufacturing is often a very visual business and you have to work with all sorts of different creatives.”
Ms Nielsen established the think tank Idea Birmingham, which brought together the leading lights of the Midlands manufacturing sector, including Jaguar Land Rover, GKN, Aga Rangemaster and JCB, to promote design-focused innovation and brand-led businesses.
She said the success of these businesses clearly illustrates the vital nature of creativity and added: “The Looking for Growth report surveyed 24 companies and examined the importance of design-driven innovation to business growth.
“This was in 2012 when collectively they were turning about £24.5 billion in 2012. These 24 companies have increased their turnover to over £30 billion since then.”
The research suggests the impact of manufacturing on the UK economy is far greater than previously thought.
Ms Neilsen said: “The supply chain of manufacturing includes many sectors which people don’t focus on in terms of manufacturing, such as graphic design, digital, photography, social media and search engine optimisation (SEO).
“When you look at some of these companies it becomes clear that they are reliant upon manufacturing businesses.
“The link between the creative industries and manufacturing is not sufficiently recognised.”
Ms Nielsen also claimed there needs to be greater collaboration and overlap between the different sectors.
She called for more “inter-disciplinary learning” in schools and universities.
Ms Nielsen: “All the major manufacturers point to the importance of design driven innovation and they are all saying that graduate skills are too narrow.
“Either they are too STEM focused (science, technology, engineering, maths) focused or too arts focused. They want thinking doers with a broader, multi-disciplinary focus who are able to think more creatively – people with deep knowledge in an area and the ability to understand a broader picture.”
Projects co-ordinated by BCU have attempted to cross the divide by bringing creative students into contact with manufacturers and getting them to work on ‘live projects’.
Ms Nielsen said: “One of the ways we did that was by creating multi-disciplined teams and getting them to solve problems and challenges.
“Students that visited Triumph were asked to make lifestyle accessories from parts in their factory.
“They created hat stands and cork screws and some visually powerful ideas which were really quite exciting.”
But policymakers tasked with rebalancing the economy and boosting UK exports are not necessarily up to speed with this type of thinking.
Ms Nielsen spoke at a fringe event at the recent Conservative Party conference, entitled the ‘Changing Shape of Manufacturing’, where she argued that the way manufacturing’s economic impact is assessed is flawed.
She does not feel her argument has been fully embraced.
“I don’t think the message is getting through enough,” she said.
“It’s also something of a bugbear of mine that the West Midlands region isn’t being properly recognised for its contribution and role in the UK economy.”
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