Scotland's low road to hi-tech

The state has spent a fortune on its vision of turning Scotland from a moribund bastion of heavy industry to a job-rich computer paradise. But Paul Ro dgers asks how well the strategy has worked
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LESLEY KEEN'S workroom on the top floor of Glasgow's Pentagon Cen tre is illuminated by a beam of autumn sunshine through a deep-set circular window. With its stone walls and clutter of computer terminals, the room looks bright, efficient, busy. It looks, indeed, like what it is: the nerve-centre of a small software company.

From the outside the view is different. The Pentagon Centre is in fact a converted 19th-century tobacco warehouse near Anderson Docks, on the Clyde. The presence of Ms Keen's company, Inner Workings, within this relic of Scotland's old mercantile traditions is symbolic of the heroic transformation of the Scottish economy over the past two decades.

Until the 1970s, trade and heavy industry sustained the Scottish lowlands. But as the roar of blast furnaces and the shipyards' clamour have faded away, the bleating of sheep in the glens is not the only sound still to be heard. The hum of computer production lines rises from foreign-owned factories scattered between Aberdeen and Ayr - a phenomenon popularly dubbed Silicon Glen.

The Government has committed hundreds of millions of pounds to its bid to tranform Scotland into the computer centre of Europe, and with some success. As well as the hardware manufacturers, there are between 300 and 400 software companies in Scotland. With annual output of pounds 9bn, the computer industry is now worth four times as much to the region as the scotch whisky industry, and employs three times as many people. It accounts for nearly half the UK's total computer exports.

But although it is hailed by the Government as a triumph of industrial policy, doubts have started to creep in. Some who work in Silicon Glen now wonder whether the optimistic statistics may not disguise a deeper failure. After all its expenditure, they question whether the Government has created anything more than a low-tech assembly industry rather than the hi-tech ideal it was aiming for.

The first leading foreign electronics company to arrive in Scotland was IBM in 1951. Hundreds followed - including Compaq, Digital, AT&T, Motorola, Hewlett Packard, Honeywell, JVC, Philips, Matsushita, Mitsubishi and NEC - setting up plants to serve the European market.

Since 1981, they have invested pounds 5bn in capital spending and created 100,000 direct jobs. Last year the investment was pounds 587m, including NEC's pounds 500m expansion in Livingston, the single largest inward investment in Scotland's history.

The new industry is nothing like its namesake, San Francisco's Silicon Valley. For starters, it's not a glen at all. The area cuts a broad swathe almost 200 miles long from Aberdeen in the North-east through Edinburgh, the central lowlands and Glasgow and on to Ayr in the South-west. Secondly, while California's concentrated computer heartland actually designs and manufactures silicon chips, Scotland's imports them. And finally, Silicon Valley grew naturally, while the Glen was force-fed with state grants.

Promoting Silicon Glen was supposed to have several benefits. New jobs would be created to replace those lost in dying industries, local companies would spring up to supply the foreign arrivals, and the latest technology would be transferred to Scottish companies.

But Scotland's success in achieving these goals is in question. Did the jobs cost too much? Are the multinationals too powerful? Are local companies getting their share of subcontracting work, and if not, why not? Should the subsidies be redirected? In short, can the industry stand on its own two feet without state grants?

The cost of subsidising jobs is easy to calculate. Through Scottish Enterprise, formerly the Scottish Development Agency, the Government has spent a fortune attracting electronics branch plants to build products ranging from mobile phones to personal computers. In the year to last March, pounds 63.1m in Regional Selective Assistance grants - almost half the Scottish total - was awarded to 41 overseas companies, creating 6,800 jobs at an average cost of pounds 9,279 each, according to the latest annual government figures.

The power of multinationals is harder to gauge. Ivan Turok of the University of Strathclyde's centre for planning argues that Silicon Glen has followed a course of dependency rather than development. ``The multinationals certainly have a lot of power,'' he said. ``They're in the driving seat and there's not a lot you can do to change that in the short term. They will do what's in their interest - chop and change things overnight - which can destroy local companies.''

Ms Keen, the managing director of Inner Workings in Glasgow, suffered just such an experience. Her story is a chilling description of overdependence on multinational computer companies.

An experienced animator, best known for making Ra, the Path of the Sun God for television, Ms Keen moved into multimedia in 1992 in partnership with a musician and a sculptor. They got their first big break writing a computer game for Philips based on CD-I technology for interactive television. Ominously, the game was titled The Nightmare Project.

Philips helped out with equipment loans and a pounds 5,000 technical guide called the Green Book. Inner Workings was two-thirds of the way through a pounds 15,000 design contract, and confident it would win the pounds 200,000 deal to develop the game, when Philips yanked out the plug. It would no longer support the development of CD-I programmes by independent software houses, concentrating instead on translating computer games already running on other systems.

``It nearly pushed us over the edge,'' Ms Keen said. ``Had I not had personal resources and an understanding bank manager, we'd have been out of business that day.'' She admits her company was naive in placing all its confidence in one big customer, and recognises that the decision-makers at Philips probably didn't realise the effect the move would have on small firms. ``We did a lot of growing up in a hurry,'' she said. ``We won't make that mistake again.''

The company still has CD-I capability, but is using it only for small projects. It is concentrating on CD-ROM, a better established technology that runs on computers rather than televisions.

Inner Workings is not the only new software house in Silicon Glen. The Scottish Software Partner Centre at Hewlett Packard's South Queensferry plant has 19 tenants. Four other centres have been opened across Scotland and a sixth is planned for Aberdeen.

But Inner Workings has just 12 employees, and other software firms tend to be in the same league. That's puny when compared to the manufacturing subcontractors that dominate the region's indigenous electronics sector. And it is the subcontractors that disappoint Dr Turok most. ``Much of what's happening there is very positive but it could be so much more,'' he said.

Many of the new companies were started by former employees of the multinationals. Most are profitable and growing quickly. But opportunities created by inward investment have not been fully grasped. Multinationals bought pounds 402m of goods and services from local suppliers last year, up 24 per cent on 1992-93, according to Jim Porter, the head of information industries at Scottish Enterprise. But the share of supply contracts held by native companies has fallen from 39 per cent in 1985 to 19 per cent now.

The relatively slow expansion of Scottish suppliers to the computer industry may be a reflection of a deeper problem - the low business birth rate. On average, twice as many new companies are formed in England and Wales as in Scotland. But there is evidence suggesting Scottish companies are just not competitive.

A survey by Dr Turok found that of 77 foreign companies that tried to increase their Scottish purchases, 61 ran into difficulties. ``Half the respondents said local firms were more expensive than suppliers elsewhere,'' he said. ``Other drawbacks include inadequate quality, long delivery times and unreliability.'' Mr Porter admits price is sometimes a barrier, but insists quality and reliability problems have been solved, and delivery times are being reduced.

The final products may be hi-tech, but the work done at the Scottish suppliers is not. Most are making and assembling bits of plastic and sheet metal. Some add cables and printed circuit boards, but they do not make the chips and other electronic hardware. The biggest purchases, disk drives and monitors, are overwhelmingly made abroad. ``The high-value components are imported from the Far East,'' Mr Porter admitted. The area where Scottish companies have the biggest share is cardboard cartons for packaging.

Strathclyde Fabricators in Lanarkshire is typical of companies riding the Silicon Glen tide. Jim Gunn, its managing director, was manager of Honeywell's sheet-metal department until the US giant started winding down the operation 20 years ago. By pooling pounds 4,500 in redundancy pay, he, his foreman and a quality engineer set up in business for themselves.

Today they have sales of pounds 12m and employ 270 people, many of them former miners or steelworkers. ``We pay more than coal or steel and the conditions here are better,'' Mr Gunn said. Most of their work is making the metal chassis for workstations, vending machines and ticket dispensers. They also assemble simple plastic components and cables. Business is growing, and Mr Gunn hopes to double his pounds 1.3m exports to Germany over the next couple of years.

Although Strathclyde has picked up modern management techniques from its customers and has bought new custom-designed equipment, the plant still looks dated. The ingenious automatic lubricator on one press is an oil-filled plastic Coke bottle with a hole in its side that lies on a ribbon of steel as it enters a press.

The company buys most of its raw materials and components from other Scottish suppliers, but 30 per cent come from elsewhere in the UK and 10 per cent from abroad. ``Sometimes it's because the customer's telling us where to go,'' said Mr Gunn. ``In one or two cases it's necessary for quality, but not always.''

Steve Tilling, the athletic general manager of Peter Tilling Plastics, also in Lanarkshire, has more fundamental problems getting Scottish suppliers. His modern, plastic-injection-moulding plant makes cases for computers, mobile phone handsets and cash cassettes for hole-in-the-wall bank machines. The plant had sales of pounds 13.5m last year, and should hit pounds 20m by September 1995. But because the plastic granules used in the injection moulds are not produced anywhere in the UK they have to be brought from Europe.

The company also has to send away for its tools, the moulds themselves. ``Tool-making is very bad in Scotland. The technology and experience here is lagging behind the rest of the UK and Ireland by 10 to 15 years,'' Mr Tilling said.

He goes out of his way to hire the best Scottish tool-makers for his in-house repair shop, and is helping to develop local suppliers by sharing CAD (computer-aided design) technology with them.

Standing in sharp contrast to the subcontract manufacturers that make up the bulk of Silicon Glen's indigenous companies is VLSI Vision Ltd. The secretive Edinburgh company has its own line of products - digital cameras and robot eyes called ``imputers''.

The products stemmed from research by the University of Edinburgh's Peter Denyer into fingerprint recognition for the British banknote and security company De La Rue in 1988. Professor Denyer noticed that the most expensive part of his recognition system was the image sensor chip, and set about reducing its cost. The price of his latest version is a tenth of competing chips. The company says ``imputers'' will have a wide range of applications, from counting tablets in bottles on automated production lines to dimming car mirrors when headlights on a following vehicle strike them.

VVL's success is more of an advertisement for funding universities than for giving grants to foreign companies. None of the technology was transferred from overseas. The company will not say whether the developments will benefit other Silicon Glen companies, however. The location of its subcontractors is a tightly guarded secret. Nor will it identify the multinationals it hopes to sell to.

Even without the help of native hi-tech companies like VVL, Scotland's manufacturers hope for a rosy future. Low-tech doesn't necessarily mean low profits. Both Mr Gunn and Mr Tilling are confident their companies will continue to grow. Other, similar companies are booming.

Fullarton Computer Industries in Ayrshire has seven Scottish plants, and has just opened an eighth in North Carolina. ``We're now looking for a site in Texas,'' said Bob Morrison, the sales manager, as he puffed on a Hamlet. ``And it's not out of the realm of possibility that we'll set up in the Pacific Rim.''

Like Strathclyde, Fullarton was started by redundant sheet-metal workers in 1978, but since 1984 it has been owned by the Laird Group of London. It has a staff of 1,730 and sales this year should hit pounds 78m. Around 30,000 computers, 80 per cent complete and lacking only the critical motherboard, disk drives and monitors, leave its UK loading docks each week. The new US plant, opened in August, will add another 12,000. The company makes a host of other products, from cash machines to automated tea-dispensers, for its clients.

Crossing the Atlantic has important strategic implications. Being closer to the head offices of the companies developing and selling computers, it can get more involved in the design-for-manufacture stage. It can also tool up to build the machines for simultaneous launch in North America and Europe. At present new models arrive here six to nine months after their introduction in the US. The change should give Fullarton a competitive advantage.

Just as optimistic is Sam Russell, managing director of Simclar in Dunfermline, Fife. His pine-panelled office is bigger than the garage where he started the business in 1976 with pounds 140. He soon moved into a second garage in Dunfermline, where his ``office'' was the telephone kiosk across the street. The company's first job was a small contract braiding wires into cables for IBM. It now has 700 staff, sales of pounds 23m and projected revenues of pounds 30m in 1995.

Mr Russell's present office may contain a key to turning Scotland's subcontracting sector into a hi-tech industry that can stand on its own. Among the papers piled on his desk are proposals from inventors. ``For years I've been looking for a product to build myself,'' he said. If he finds one and pushes it through to production, Simclar will be the first Silicon Glen firm to move from subcontracting to running its own show.

One exception to the general rule that Silicon Glen has followed is the Glenrothes-based Calluna, which makes an advanced hard disk drive that looks like a fat credit card. The company was formed by ex-employees of Rodime - a world leader in 3.5-inch disk drives that ran into trouble when it expanded too fast and went into receivership in 1991. Rodime in turn had been formed by ex-employees of Burroughs, a large US multinational in the same town. Calluna raised pounds 11m when it was floated three weeks ago, and investors seem optimistic about its prospects. The shares have risen from 65p to 101p since the float.

Beyond our glen: Peter Tilling Plastics in Lanarkshire, a native company with sales of pounds 13.5m last year, has to import not only plastic granules for its business making cases for computers, mobile phone handsets and cash cassettes, but even the plastic injection moulds themselves

(Photographs omitted)