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How is the manufacturing sector in the North East evolving & how can STEM and an evolving skills base support its continued growth?

As with many manufacturing regions, the challenge of bridging the skills gap is omnipresent. Many of the UK’s ‘traditional’ manufacturing processes are not as favoured by our millennials, as are topics aligned with robotics and automation

28 June 2021

Jon Alderson, Special Purpose Business Development Manager, ALTEC Engineering, offers his perceptions and perspectives on the region, its manufacturing dynamic, sector strengths and growth within UK manufacturing.

There is little doubt that the Automotive sector plays a key role in the North East, supported by the presence of the Nissan plant, but also the many Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers who are also located in the area. This presence looks set to continue, if not grow, with the ongoing drive for EV’s (electric vehicles) and plans for a Giga-Factory in the region. To some extent, the North East mirrors other manufacturing areas in the UK which also have a large automotive manufacturing presence, however, the Nissan plant, being one of the most productive worldwide, was perhaps instrumental in setting the standards which have been adopted by other OEM’s.

Businesses across the North East manufacture all manner of goods, including foodstuffs and packaging, though the region's industry is best known for the production of pharmaceuticals and vehicles. The latter with a focus upon the integration of innovative technologies within its manufacturing processes.

As an early adopter of new and emerging technologies, substantiated by the number of robots now in production across the sector, the automotive sector recognised the benefits delivered by robots and automation; the dynamism and flexibility needed to respond to dynamic changes in production schedules, multiple product iterations, and the increasing trends of vehicle customisation. Such principles are slowly but surely being adopted in other areas.

Advanced manufacturing in the North East contributes over 15% of its GVA (Gross Value Added) and 11.3% of the area’s employment[1] And whilst the adoption of robotics and automation are supporting a significant productivity shift, there are also the many advantages that disruptive technology affords businesses in the region. Manufacturers who embrace the many benefits which Automation and Robotics can deliver are able to capitalize on the Competitive Advantages these technologies bring. Aside from the benefits to their in-house manufacturing processes, the ability to demonstrate a track record of automated manufacturing will enhance opportunities for new contracts with both existing and potential customers, as purveyors of dynamic, forward-thinking, and ‘smart’ manufacturing solutions.

As with many manufacturing regions, the challenge of bridging the skills gap is omnipresent. Many of the UK’s ‘traditional’ manufacturing processes are not as favoured by our millennials, as are topics aligned with robotics and automation. Consider welding. Traditional joining and welding are now being integrated into automated applications, with robots executing the weld, addressing considerations such as weld quality, application consistency, and throughput. Those students studying STEM subjects and passing through the North East’s Universities’ Engineering & Technology streams will be valuable and much-needed assets for the future of manufacturing in the North East. Over 100,000 students study at the region’s five universities, with more than half studying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects[2]. The region, like much of the UK, is now suffering as a result of underinvestment in training apprentices and engineers resulting in the current skills shortages. Funding for them (and adult learning in general) has fallen 45% since 2009-10[3] Estimates suggest that by 2030, nearly 20% of the workforce will be significantly under-skilled[4] A worrying statistic at a time when the UK should be positioning itself as a competitive force within the global manufacturing arena.

Those of the current generation entering a manufacturing environment at the end of their training can make a valuable contribution to changing attitudes to established manufacturing practices and automation. In what could be termed a ‘role-reversal’ this generation can help reassure, educate and train a legacy workforce in the use of new technologies ultimately raising the skill level across the whole workforce.

It is essential that businesses in the North East, and further afield, embrace disruptive technologies in order to meet the evolving demands of customers and consumers alike. As forward-thinking businesses manufacturers must continue to develop their offerings through the evaluation and implementation of new and emerging technologies. Robots, Cobots, Mobile Robots, and AGV’s will increasingly become an essential part of comprehensive automation solutions for many manufacturing businesses in the North East and beyond.

The UK’s manufacturing sector is now more important than it has been for decades. If the UK is to succeed, we need to increase levels of manufacturing overall, achieve the highest levels of productivity and keep manufacturing costs under control to remain competitive in world markets. The only way this can be achieved is by adopting much greater levels of automation.


[1] North East Continues to Lead the Way for Manufacturing | North East Connected (

[2] Automotive and Advanced Manufacturing | Sectors | Invest North East England

[3] [4] What is the skills gap, and what can I do about it? | A detailed look – FutureLearn