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Ken Keir on UK manufacturing

Updated Thursday 2nd February 2012

Honda Executive Vice Director Ken Keir talks the role of government in promoting manufacturing, the impact of environmental demands and the future for making things in the UK with Leslie Budd of The Open University.

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Transcript

Leslie:
There’s been a lot of comment on the role of manufacturing in rebalancing the economy. Do we need a ministry of manufacturing, a bit like the ministry of international trade and industry in Japan?

Ken:
Do we need an emphasis on manufacturing in government? The answer is most certainly. Do we need a department of manufacturing? My reaction to that question would be do we need to segregate manufacturing from business? I would doubt, because we can only develop manufacturing if we understand the business opportunity. Not just in the UK or even Europe for that matter, on a global basis. But we certainly need a skill level, an understanding of what manufacturing requires and does and contributes on a national basis. And I think that could be within a bigger department. I would worry about a singular department in manufacturing.

Now, and I’ll give you an example of where I think there would be a genuine contribution. In the education environment there is a limited understanding of what manufacturing is today. We still hold the image of dirty, not as highly skilled as people would appreciate. And the reality is now it’s an exciting environment. We’ve just got to get the kids through to understand that, and you’ve got to start in the education profession to get this, as an example. There are many others in terms of what we contribute to the GDP, and how important manufacturing is in society, and what I mean by that, not everybody can be skilled.

You know, there are people who want to do a job that’s worth to the community, worth to the company, but doesn’t have to be more than semi skilled. And manufacturing needs these people. If you take away manufacturing what do these people do? So there’s a huge responsibility to develop manufacturing, not just for economic reasons, for society reasons as well.

Leslie:
Just on that, should we look to other countries like Germany and Japan to provide some lessons?

Ken:
I think we already have provided lessons. You know, I’m with Honda and I look back in my career and see manufacturing of cars 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 30 years ago, not that old, 30 years ago and manufacturing of cars now, and we’ve seen the difference is just out of all recognition. Not just because of robotics, because of things like cleanliness, it’s a reasonably clinical environment producing cars today. So the learning has evolved over the last 30 years, and it will go further. So benchmarking Germany, Japan, wouldn’t do any harm, but the reality is there’s a lot of understanding and skill within Britain already, we should tap into it more.

Leslie:
Has the fury over the train building contracts shown that the question of foreign ownership of companies is increasingly irrelevant in a global economy?

Ken:
My opinion is it’s utterly irrelevant. The investment required if you take manufacturing is profound; we should welcome whatever nationality into our country if they can offer employment, stability of the future and contribution to GDP. Why not? And the ownership, as long as they are responsible businesses to contribute to our society of UK, I’m not convinced whether it’s British owned or anybody else owned is a major factor.

Leslie:
And in the car industry things like Just in Time and new business models seems to have actually created opportunities for other kinds of business, and actually been the basis of not a new business model but a continuing business model. Do you think people don’t make that link enough?

Ken:
I think there is an opportunity for greater efficiency of our manufacturing base through the whole channel, whether it be supply, manufacturing or logistics. And I think that’s a never ending science, because to a very large extent it is a science now. And we need talented people who can develop further these levels of effectiveness. Let’s not just call it efficiency. And I think there are huge opportunities in the higher education environment of developing new processes. It doesn’t have to be Just in Time as Japan put into use, gave us the opportunity in the UK, it’s the whole science of evolving the end product, whatever that end product is. And I think it’s never ending.

Leslie:
And finally, does the clamour over green infrastructure of products, projects I should say, overlook the role of the automobile industry in promoting sustainability?

Ken:
No, I don’t think it does. I think the motor industry have been supremely responsible in developing products progressively that will enhance our environment. And I’m not talking just about the product itself, I’m talking about manufacturing and in fact retailing to improve environment. However what I do think is that I think the customer is the king. Now we worry about the environment, and so we should, but the reality is the customer in our case, in the motor industry wants mobility. And the customer wants that mobility to do whatever it is they want it to do, whether it’s performance car, family car, whatever, sports car, it doesn’t matter. How it is powered will become less and less important providing it does what the customer wants.

So the challenge is to develop products that the customer wants, and we’re becoming more diverse in the requirement of mobility based on environment, but we can’t use it as a new unique selling opportunity, because the industry has the sense of responsibility of taking it forward. So the environment will be, is a given now, it’s not, it’s a right of passage, it is no more than that. We can’t say we are the top environment. I think in the company I work with, I work for, we are pretty good, but that’s beside the point, it’s offering what the customer wants in an environmental responsible way.

Leslie:
Ken Keir, thank you very much.

Ken:
Thank you.

Ken Keir and Leslie Budd were in discussion after the recording of the 2nd February 2012 edition of The Bottom Line.

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