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Manufacturing – an intensive debate required

The recent problems of the UK steel industry have resurrected an old debate about the role of manufacturing in our economy. 

For Glasgow these are well-worn arguments; with our heavy engineering largely gone for years. Whilst the sale of Clydebridge and Dalzell is warmly to be welcomed, the impact of the steel industry on the city’s economy is not what it was. 

The same can also be said for shipbuilding, although Jim McColl is having a right good go at bringing Ferguson into the 21st century, and we can expect Royal Navy vessels to be built on the Clyde by BAE Systems for many years yet. Nobody wants to see these industries disappear completely. 

We care about the future of manufacturing in Glasgow. My organisation after all is the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures. Perhaps we don’t use the last part of that name often enough. 

I’m not sure we have learnt much new from the steel discussion. I was hoping to hear more about the progress we are making in Scotland - and in the UK - to respond to, for example, the Internet of Things or the emergence of new technologies such as 3D printing.

Are we seeing new opportunities to grow cost competitive manufacturing? Is technology making it less important to depend on cheap labour and production economies of scale? Are we learning from German industry’s response to its own concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? 

When the Scottish Government’s Manufacturing Action Plan was published in February there was much to commend, including proposals for a centre of manufacturing excellence, a focus on ensuring our manufacturing skills pipeline is robust, and a fresh emphasis on the idea of the circular economy which uses clever design to minimise waste across a product’s full life cycle. 

But the document said almost nothing about the context, about the major trends that are changing the face of manufacturing across the world. The emphasis was on action, not strategy. At moments of crisis that emphasis is understandable, but Scotland’s crisis in manufacturing is long past. Our issues are more chronic. 

Last week’s Quarterly Report from the Scottish Chambers of Commerce gave a mixed picture for manufacturing, and future employment forecasts for Glasgow usually suggest an inevitable steady decline in manufacturing jobs. 

Can we now start a more intensive debate about what the Fourth Industrial Revolution might mean for manufacturing in Scotland?

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