UK manufacturing industry’s “amazing adaptability” revealed in five-year study

Research from Protolabs and IMechE shows huge rise in business confidence, despite period of unprecedented challenges

UK manufacturers have demonstrated amazing adaptability during a period of unprecedented major disruption, according to a new report published by Protolabs and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).

The report, How Five Years Shaped the Future of UK Manufacturing, is based on annual surveys of more than 700 UK manufacturing executives and IMechE members over five years covering the years before, during and after the global pandemic and Brexit.

It shows that, despite the challenges, confidence has greatly increased among businesses, particularly around their readiness to adopt Industry 4.0 practices and the digital processes needed to remain globally competitive.

When specifically asked how prepared they were for the Industry 4.0 era and the rise of digital processes, almost two thirds (65%) now say that they are ‘very prepared’ or ‘prepared’. This is a three-fold increase compared to the answers participants gave in 2019.

The study also found UK manufacturers now have greater belief in their own ability to resolve the digital skills gap by training their own people. In response to the question, “what is the greatest challenge UK companies face when adopting digital manufacturing techniques?”, almost 70% said “a lack of expertise” in 2019. However, that number has now fallen to just 33%.

Whereas previously, participants said their labour force lacked the rights skills and that not enough new talent was entering the manufacturing industry, it is clear businesses are taking action to resolve this challenge. In 2023, “greater focus and investment in STEM talent” rose to become the top priorities listed by participants for the first time.

Bjoern Klass, Managing Director & Vice President EMEA, Protolabs said: “When we set out in 2019 to conduct an annual survey of engineers for five years, we had no idea how much our world would change in that time. This period has stress-tested UK manufacturing but the sector has shown amazing adaptability. Under extreme pressure, businesses have worked hard to secure their future, for example recognising the need to upskill their existing workforce rather than waiting for the people with relevant STEM qualifications to become available.

“This resilience is now paying off. Research from Make UK has shown that UK manufacturing is moving the right direction. We are climbing the global league table – up from 9th to 8th place.”

Matthew Rooney, head of policy at IMechE, said: “The UK’s manufacturing industry has suffered a tough few years. The uncertainty caused by Brexit was followed by the economic downturn driven by the pandemic made for an uncertain investment environment.

“There are signs of a renaissance, however. The UK is a leader in scientific research and high value manufacturing. The sector holds vital importance to our economy and deserves more government recognition and investment. With a general election coming later this year, this report by Protolabs could not be more timely.”

Manufacturing Update