Recently I was invited to participate in Insider Media’s annual roundtable for manufacturing sector leaders in the South East. With a focus on “planning for growth, funding the future”, it was a fascinating and enlightening morning of discussion chaired by the regional business editor Philip Cunliffe.

Much of the conversation centred on two key challenges that the sector faces as we head into 2023: firstly, reducing costs through process innovation and secondly, increasing recruitment and driving team retention.

It was interesting to notice that manufacturing, as a relatively complex business model, can sometimes act as a bellwether for the ‘gnarly issues’ the wider business community is facing, as well as the potential solutions.

The impact of macro-economic factors such as supply chain issues, logistics and rising energy costs have been felt by almost every business – but especially by manufacturers. Where in the past we might have worked with larger SMEs on innovating new products, we’ve been finding that ‘process innovation’ is more in demand right now. Business owners are looking inward at how they can make more with less.

“Typically companies buy technology systems when they’re in growth mode, but they also buy them during difficult economic moments in order to maintain control. Things like shop floor data capture, advanced manufacturing systems, energy monitoring are driving efficiencies within businesses. A lot of manufacturers are thinking about changing to set themselves up better and stronger in the future.” – Mark Hughes, regional vice president (UK), Epicor.

Similarly, the recruitment and retention issues experienced by many of our clients have been particularly pronounced for the manufacturing sector. As part of the University of Sussex, we’re particularly interested in how to address skills gaps for industry and improve the opportunities for meaningful work for students and graduates. As well as helping businesses to access degree apprenticeships, we can advise on some of the factors that can help you to become an employer of choice and attract the best talent.

“It’s still not an easy task for companies to recruit skilled engineers. I think we need to make manufacturing more attractive and HR can play a big role by changing the culture within organisations, making them good places to work and offering long-term careers. Middle management within businesses often need coaching.” – John Stevenson, head of manufacturing, EMC.

The reason we were invited to participate in this session was our experience of working on similar issues with businesses just like these over the past few months. Supported by the UK Government’s Community Renewal Fund, we’ve been hard at work on a series of ‘Hit Squad’ consultancy projects. They have an in-depth and multi-disciplinary focus and will form the basis of our offering to established, ambitious businesses in 2023.

Our Hit Squads are set up to address real business challenges like those I heard discussed at the roundtable. Far from being a ‘one size fits all’ product, they are about bringing together a team with deep expertise, an understanding of the problem at hand, and its underlying causes.

Our relationship with the University really comes into its own with these projects. We can call upon its world-leading research community and supplement them with practical project management from our team of coaches and consultants.

A great example is our recent collaborative ideation day, where we introduced two research fellows from the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit, who brought specialist expertise around co-creating projects with multiple stakeholders, as well as measuring and tracking the KPIs.

Being underpinned by the ethics and values of the University also puts us in a unique position of trust and access. For a team consultation project centering on a difficult HR conversation about productivity and training, we have been able to act as a neutral arbiter and line of communication between senior management and the factory floor. And for a market research project involving lapsed customers and clients, we have been able to gain insights that traditional, purely commercial research agencies might not.

Last but not least, as these projects evolve we’re working to ensure that that the University’s involvement will become a potential source of funding. Through our close working relationship with the Innovation and Business Partnerships team – who work out of our Centre – Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and academic grants may provide an opportunity to take the most promising industrial collaborations forward.

The next year will certainly bring challenges, but it’s an exciting opportunity for us to play a part in strengthening our local manufacturing sector.