Keith Cochrane: Innovation is expensive and risky, but it could be game-changer for the UK

Keith Cochrane
Friday 29 June 2012 00:01 BST

Weir has come a long way since it began as a supplier of engineering equipment to Britain's growing naval and merchant shipping industry in the late 19th century.

Today, we design and manufacture equipment for the mining, oil & gas and power markets, from vital pipeline transportation pumps to flow-control equipment for onshore and offshore oil production and nuclear safety valves for reactors from South Korea to the US. This ability to seek out new markets is one of Weir's and UK manufacturing's strengths.

We make our equipment all over the world, but our UK operations remain among our best. "Made in Britain" is a resonant calling card in the overseas markets on which we focus. The challenge is to build on that position.

First, UK manufacturers must continue to focus on their critical success factors. Innovation – and that needn't mean constant "game-changing" technology.

Incremental product improvement is important, ideally intellectual-property protected to sustain leading market positions and safeguard customers.

Low-cost competition is a reality for us all. Operational excellence underpins product quality and keeps costs controlled. At Weir, we use lean methodologies, eliminating any resources other than those that create value for our customers, from the factory floor through key functions such as supply chain and IT.

This manufacturing excellence in highly engineered products can differentiate the UK from its competitors.

Finally, UK manufacturers must build a compelling model around their product offering.

We focus on mission-critical products used in challenging operating environments.

Weir technology is differentiated by engineered hydraulics and materials developed for longer wear life and therefore greater efficiency.

But we combine this with a global support network to enable Weir to rapidly deploy on-the-ground engineering expertise to our customers, wherever they may be.

This model sustains our competitive advantage, but we guard against complacency at all times. We have a healthy respect for global competitors.

But it's not just manufacturing businesses that can ensure "Made in Britain" continues to mean something special. Broader issues will shape our future competitiveness. Rebalancing the economy back towards "making things" is laudable, but this requires intervention in the education and skills sector. Engineering careers are rich and rewarding and young people must get that message early – ideally from primary school. More can also be made of manufacturing's links with further and higher education. This is critical in developing a pipeline of talent from future generations.

The UK could also do more to develop effective domestic supply chains. Industry would be prepared to co-invest with government and development agencies, stimulating employment and building global excellence in certain sectors.

Fundamental innovation can be game changing, but is expensive and can be risky to undertake. At present, only the largest businesses can afford to take this risk on, despite the fact some of the best brains are in smaller businesses. R&D incentives could be enhanced to de-risk and spread the innovation load across all sizes of UK manufacturer.

I am optimistic about the future of UK manufacturing. With action in these areas, things could be even better.

Keith Cochrane is chief executive of Weir Group

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