Letter: We must have ideas if Britain is to make it

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The Independent Online
Sir: We were interested to read Hamish McRae's article 'Manufacturing - who needs it anyway?' (18 November).

At a basic level, manufacturing does matter in that it keeps people off the dole queue. As a consequence, we still need to know how to make things. However, the real bone of contention lies with the understanding of the word 'manufacturing'. This is not just a question of semantics - if you take it to mean making things in its literal sense, then manufacturing will probably become less significant in the long term. However, if you take it to mean everything from the conception of a product right through to delivery of that idea to the customer and beyond, then manufacturing is very important. The latter set of activities may be termed 'product development' rather than 'manufacturing'.

Although we as a nation have been, and still are, extremely good at coming up with ideas, unfortunately neither product development (ie, turning ideas into makeable things) nor innovation management (ie, managing the process of turning ideas into makeable things) have ever been on our list of strong points - but they are on Japan's. (This concern was recently raised by our CBI.) Therefore, if we are going to aspire to be a leading 'industrial' nation (again), the UK must concentrate on developing things from ideas.

Contrary to what was stated, the Japanese will not be submerged by a sea of traditional foreign 'manufacturers' in the future as they will have a significant edge in new-product development and technological innovation. Japanese companies invest principally in people, the ideas they come up with and the knowledge of production; the actual making, assembling and packing of the resulting products is of secondary importance.

Exporting ideas and not just relying on services alone will keep a developed country (such as Japan) ahead of the industrialised pack. For long-term future prosperity the UK needs properly educated and trained technological brains who will be capable of successfully initiating ideas and converting them into makeable (and marketable) things. Where the things are finally made is unimportant - it is the ideas that are of economic value.

Yours faithfully,

IAN BLACK

JAMES RITCHIE

Department of Mechanical Engineering

Edinburgh

22 November

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