London and the new industrial revolution

London Essays – Issue 2: Technology

London and the new industrial revolution

When people discuss UK manufacturing, they don’t normally consider London. Making things is seen as part of the city’s past, not its future. But manufacturing is changing, and London is a near perfect place for a new generation of production industries, driven by design, technology and customisation.

By Peter Marsh

Take Vitsoe, a long-established maker of business and consumer storage units in a bewildering range of permutations, who now use the latest ideas in cloud computing to process orders from around the world. Or FormFormForm, producers of the Sugru mouldable glue, who use novel chemical synthesis allied with dexterous use of social media to sell worldwide; or ROLI – makers of novel musical keyboards based on electronics and touch sensors; and Bouncepad – who tailor-make cleverly designed holders for tablet computers for a spectrum of industries from museums to retail.

Manufacturing in London is following broader developments. The manufacturing of the past was characterised by long production runs and repetitive manual labour. It was used to make goods that varied little between one day and the next. The focus in the industries of the future will be on fast changing products, created to high specifications, often through mixing a range of technologies, from electronics to biotech.

Next generation manufacturing will be tailored to individual requirements and fabricated in short runs. Factories of the future are more likely to be small and discrete than big and highly visible. New technologies – among them readily customisable software, 3D printing (which layers material in tiny amounts to build bespoke plastic or metal parts – from ornaments to prostheses) and laser cutting – can be brought to bear on everything from children’s toys to ‘intelligent’ lighting.

Many workers in successful manufacturing businesses will not work in manual occupations – though these will continue to be important – but in jobs such as research and customer support, which are more like service sector jobs.

In a book published in 2012, I termed these far-reaching changes “the new industrial revolution”.  38

London has many characteristics that could make it an ideal location for businesses operating according to the new manufacturing model. Indeed London could act as an exemplar, showing other UK cities the way forward in a form of industry with great potential for creating jobs and wealth. What are these strengths? The capital has large numbers of people in design industries, good global connections and a growing technology community. It has strong traditions in artisan-type production where craft skills are blended with technology-rich disciplines such as metal working and where the accent is on customisation rather than mass production.

The capital already contains many, mainly small, businesses in fields such as furniture, joinery and metals processing that make goods in an increasingly high-tech and customised fashion using modern machinery. Warren Evans – a bed manufacturer – is one such company. Another, less established, business is Unto This Last, a producer of items such as chairs and tables, the fabrication of which is based around the requirements of customers. Individual preferences are translated into production routines for the company’s manual workers through bespoke software devised by its small team of computer technicians.

Other London specialisms, like engineering services and architecture, share the working methods and ethos of modern manufacturing businesses. Arup – a world leader in structural engineering – has its most important centre in the UK capital. It relies on novel manufactured items – from structural supports for bridges to new roof panels – for much of its work. Foster + Partners, a large London-based architectural firm, is one of the UK’s biggest and most proficient users of 3D printing, predominantly for architectural models.

London also has a supportive infrastructure of services and research, providing the foundations for successful manufacturing businesses. For instance there is an important cadre of brand and product design businesses that work for manufacturing companies around the world: PriestmanGoode is a good example. Many law, finance and accountancy practices in London also show an increasing understanding of the new wave of manufacturing. Their services are often a vital enabling force, allowing the ‘new manufacturing’ to prosper. The engineering and scientific skills of the capital’s many top universities and colleges are on hand to provide the technical expertise that many businesses putting into practice the new industrial revolution require.

So what is stopping London forging ahead? Firstly, there is a serious shortage of suitable premises for modern production enterprises. These firms want to bring together design, workshop, product development and customer service space – lab, studio, factory floor and shopfront – and they ideally want to be in central London, where they can attract the talented staff they need. Such premises are thin on the ground, particularly at affordable rents, and the problem is getting worse: spiralling demand for housing in London (and changes to permitted development rights in planning) is intensifying pressure to convert industrial and commercial premises into flats and houses, often at the luxury end of the market.

This is worsening the shortage of suitable premises for firms practising the new forms of manufacturing, which require in one place design, workshop, product development and customer service spaces – lab, studio, factory floor and shopfront. The preference is for buildings of this sort – or land for their construction – to be located in central rather than suburban locations, in order to attract the young and multi-talented workforces who often prefer places of employment in the more vibrant city districts.

Compounding the space issue is ignorance. Many politicians, planning officials and business people fail to understand the new forces shaping manufacturing. Since they struggle to see the potential for London in the industries of the future, they are in a poor position to lend the necessary support either to the existing companies in this field or to the entrepreneurs keen to set up new ones. It is now time for a change. Politicians and government officials need to wake up to the possibilities. They should consider how planning policy can provide for new types of manufacturing enterprise in order to create jobs, generate wealth and broaden London’s economic base, making it less dependent on service disciplines. We have grown used to parts of cities being identified as ‘media hubs’ or ‘biotech quarters’. Why not designate a corner of London – in as central a location as possible – as the city’s ‘new manufacturing’ district?

With increased awareness about the good prospects for London in the new ideas behind manufacturing, future historians could one day look back at the city and say that it led a new manfucturing revolution.

  • 38 Marsh P (2012) The new industrial revolution: consumers, globalisation and the end of mass production, Yale University Press.