Britain’s carmakers fear the wheels are coming off

What have toothpaste manufacturing and Formula One motor racing got in common?

Very little, on the face of it – unless you head to a factory in Maidenhead, which eight years ago was the scene of a case study beloved of manufacturing students (and business writers).

In 2011, a team of consultants from the motor racing team McLaren visited GlaxoSmithKline’s Berkshire facility, which pumps out millions of tubes of Sensodyne and Aquafresh.

The problem these hotshots had been invited to solve was this: each time the factory wanted to switch production from one brand of toothpaste to another, machine tubing had to be cleaned, tools rearranged and systems tweaked – all of which interrupted production.

Apart from this being a costly faff, the changeover was detested by factory staff. It was a chore – laborious work that was unrewarding and unrewarded. At least that was until the petrolheads screeched into the factory and treated this conundrum as something akin to an F1 pitstop.

New tools were designed and McLaren created a team of changeover specialists, who were incentivised in seemingly minor ways (they got to feel awfully vigorous by slipping into McLaren overalls). The result was that the time taken to switch production was cut from 39 minutes to a quarter of an hour, and the concept was credited with allowing a £15m production system to fill an additional 6.7 million tubes of toothpaste per year.

That may not sound nearly as satisfying as roaring away from the pits at speed but, if you’re a manufacturing nerd, it’s a bit like souping up your Reliant Robin and performing a wheelie at the traffic lights.

All of which is a long lap of the track before discussing this week’s business calendar, where the themes of UK manufacturing, the British car industry and (inevitably) Brexit look set to collide.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is due to release numbers this week on car, commercial vehicle and engine manufacturing – figures that so far this year have been in reverse.

At its last outing, the SMMT said that UK car production had fallen by a “bitterly disappointing” 3.8% during September, adding to a turbulent year-to-date in which political and economic turmoil, softness in key markets and operational changes have been blamed for a 15.6% slump.

Unsurprisingly, the SMMT’s boss, Mike Hawes, warned that the industry was most worried about “the continued threat of a no-deal Brexit”, which is said to have caused “international investment to stall” and cost hundreds of millions of pounds, “money that would have better been spent in meeting the technological challenges facing the global industry”.

Hawes’s comments dovetail with a different announcement from earlier this month, when Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, said that the electric carmaker would be building its first major European factory on the outskirts of Berlin. “Brexit made it too risky to put a Gigafactory in the UK,” the entrepreneur said, to the delight of Remain campaigners.

“[Boris] Johnson’s super-hard Brexit plan would see new trade barriers with our European partners,” wrote Lib Dem deputy leader Ed Davey in the Financial Times. “This will drive down already stagnant business investment … We must take seriously Mr Musk’s announcement.”

If he could be persuaded to comment on Tesla, Johnson would surely say the uncertainty will disappear as soon as we Get Brexit Done™. But Musk’s decision still seems like a missed opportunity, as he’s previously expressed an admiration for UK manufacturing – and F1 nous in particular.

“We have a lot of respect for the British automotive engineering talent,” the billionaire told the Daily Telegraph in 2016. “Just look at Formula One – it amazes me how much British talent there is in that. We are likely to establish a Tesla engineering group in Britain at some point in the future.”

That remains a startling comment, as Musk rarely admits that anyone else might know better. Unlike the makers of Aquafresh.


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