Interview: Steve Brambley, CEO, Gambica
Image credit: Nick Smith
Steve Brambley, the incoming CEO of instrumentation, control and automation trade association Gambica, discusses the wealth of opportunity presented to UK PLC by increased digitalisation in the workplace, while offering a cautionary note about the challenges posed by Brexit.
“When it comes to Brexit,” says Steve Brambley “there are two distinct impacts that will influence the shape of the future industrial economic landscape.” The first, he says, will have no bearing on your personal political view about departure from the EU, because it is simply a matter of objective fact that “we have spent an enormous amount of time talking about it”.
Brambley, who is the new CEO of Gambica, the industry body representing the ‘industrial electronics’ sector, says: “While we are talking about Brexit we are not doing other stuff. The government is spending half its time on Brexit, while industry bodies like ours are also spending similar amounts of time involved with Brexit-related activities. While we’re doing this, we’re not getting on with our Industrial Strategy. We’re not doing positive things.”
He goes on: “If we had voted the other way, we wouldn’t be wasting so much time today. It’s a disruption, and industry would rather we didn’t have that disruption. Whatever the end result looks like, the process is so demanding it’s just not a good use of our time.”
The second impact of leaving the EU, says Brambley, is that “without understanding what the government’s eventual policy will be, we don’t know much better than anyone else what will happen. So we are forced to work on multiple scenarios. More planning centred on what the differing outcomes might have looked like would have been good. However, we can’t turn the clock back.” Knowing what we know now, says Brambley, “almost all of our members think that leaving is a mistake. But the one thing that is clear is that ‘no deal’ is the worst possible outcome. That will result in higher tariffs and barriers to business.” He goes on to describe the complexity of the supply chain in today’s industrial economics: “It’s an international business. We have products that move backwards and forwards across the EU-UK border numerous times before they are finished and make it onto the global market.” It stands to reason, he says, that if you make this movement of product harder, the UK will become less competitive. Multinationals can shift their emphasis globally to compensate for this, “but it might make life harder for SMEs, depending on where they are in the supply chain”.
As a trade association Gambica’s role, says Brambley, “is to represent the industry as a whole to the outside world and to itself. We are a voice to government, standards bodies, regulatory compliance specialists, the manufacturing world and the general public. We are also the voice of a large, diverse group of manufacturers in the industrial automation, process instrumentation and control, test and measurement, and laboratory technology.”
The association oversees these four sectors under the umbrella term ‘industrial electronics’, representing a combined turnover of £7bn (about half of which is exported) and 40,000 employees in the UK. The organisation traces its roots back to the First World War, but formed under its current flag in 1981 as the amalgamation of a number of related associations. “We exist to try to help our industry have the most impact it possibly can while maintaining a broad view of the economy, jobs and the environmental side of things too: pollution control, energy efficiency, sustainability... anything that reduces our consumption or resources.”
This representation takes the form of three main strands of activity, the first being technical in terms of “influencing standards, placing experts and in-house staff on committees that directly write standards, which is important for international and global manufacturers. In fact we are the second largest contributor to BSI in a technical world that is very standard-heavy. We also work with and support technical regulation, as this is often a driver for, say, improved energy efficiency standards or better productivity.”
The second activity “is more commercial, assisting the industry to understand trends of sales in particular product categories. We collect data from our members confidentially, aggregate it and publish it, allowing members to get a benchmark within their own businesses as compared with the industry as a whole. In some cases, we can get levels of granularity that can really help with details such as sizes of push-buttons or kilowatt ratings of drives – the sort of information that you won’t find in commercial reports on the open market.”
The third strand is simply representation, with the association being the voice of the industry, which could be discussing, “Brexit, the Apprenticeship Levy or, let’s say, educating the industry as a whole on the benefits of controlling motors to reduce energy consumption. It’s about generating awareness of what’s possible.”
One of the current hot-ticket items is the debate about the effect of digitalisation on the world of work. “What we’re really looking at is the impact on jobs, to be seen in the broader context of the economy as a whole, the way in which manufacturing adds value to the economy and the way in which technology makes these things more efficient and effective.” This is in the wake of the publication of the government’s ‘Made Smarter’ review. Brambley says the timing for the review is right because “of the Industrial Strategy. This is great news because this is the first time the words ‘industrial’ and ‘strategy’ have been used together by the government.”
The history behind this, according to Brambley, is that “government understands vertical sectors such as automotive, pharmaceutical, food and drink. These are easy to categorise and there is a limited number of companies in any of these sectors, while the product is also understandable.” We understand cars, aeroplanes and chocolate bars, but in the past the industrial automation sector, “has had huge problems representing itself to government because the two don’t align. We’re a horizontal sector that influences the verticals. But we are very diverse. Within our membership we have 220 organisations that are diverse in every possible way you could imagine: size, business strategy, product portfolio, end-user market. We also operate in a number of trade association collaborations where if you were to bring 10 together, the diversity is simply enormous,” making representation to government even more challenging.
Yet, the word ‘digitalisation’ is a word “that government ‘gets’, which means that there is a channel for expression now that hadn’t really existed before”. What Gambica is doing, says Brambley “is condensing our message, which is that enabling technology is something the market needs to be confident about putting in place”. This confidence comes from knowing that there will be a return on investment and that the technology can be successfully implemented. But there are lots of barriers to embracing digitalisation across industry: “If you put up enough barriers to it, the market won’t accept it, even if it is a no-brainer.”
‘Brexit is a disruption, and industry would rather we didn’t have that disruption.’
With 12 years at Gambica under his belt, Brambley can hardly be accused of being helicoptered in to his new role. He served for a decade as head of the organisation’s automation sector. Then he spent two years in charge of public affairs, where much of his time was spent working on the twin issues of the UK’s Industrial Strategy and Brexit, which he describes as “two very large strands of government-facing work”. All of which made it a natural progression for him to take over from Gambica’s outgoing CEO Graeme Philp.
A mechanical engineer by background, Brambley studied at Loughborough University, sponsored by the Michelin tyre company, later going on to work at Michelin’s Stoke, Ballymena and Dundee factories in engineering and management roles. At Dundee, he was involved with “making manufacturing more efficient” while in particular, examining ways of reducing injury, before implementing the computerisation of the facility’s warehouse “from a completely paper-based system operated by people who’d never used a computer in their lives. Which was interesting.” After Michelin, Brambley joined an automotive start-up that supplied electric motors for power steering manufacturers. “That was really challenging because I’d gone from a very large, paternalistic multinational to an empty building with just five people with lots of good ideas and big plans. As manufacturing manager I had absolute freedom. Later, as we expanded I became quality director.”
After a series of corporate buy-outs, the organisation’s manufacturing was moved to Slovakia, leaving Brambley opting for a career change that led to “doing something broader with a trade association, with the appeal of working across an industry rather than in a single entity”.
One of the most ominous barriers to widespread acceptance of digitalisation is jobs. Brambley says that “digitalisation is subtly different from automation. In the past 20 years we’ve talked about automation as a piece of technical equipment that goes into an industrial site, which will take away the manual aspect of a job by turning it into something that happens automatically.” The public, he says, sees robotics as the “poster child of that. But we estimate robots to be only 5 per cent of the market by value. But lots of automation is unseen in cabinets and ceilings. It’s computers and sensors making decisions,” which, when working well, remains anonymous and in the background to the process.
On the other hand “digitalisation is a step above that, which is to say that you’re not just connecting your manufacturing and processing systems, but your business systems too. So you might be linking in your spares management with your HR management or your customer warranty system. Currently these business systems act as islands of expertise within your business. So the question is: ‘how do you use all of the data in your business to make great decisions, that otherwise may not have been made by the accidental coming together of humans being in the right place at the right time in a specific meeting?’ It’s about autonomous systems or semi-autonomous, with some form of human oversight. Yet ultimately, it’s about making real-time decisions, and there are some great examples out there, but it’s not widespread.”
Digitalisation putting pressure on employment figures is an area of critical concern to government, “because no-one wants to support innovation that is seen as contentious among your electorate, or that is putting people out of jobs. Some of the mainstream media is very good at creating scare stories about how we are all going to have our jobs automated out of existence and no-one will have a job anymore.” The reality, he says, is that “we are nowhere near that, and won’t be in our lifetimes”.
Another significant barrier to a digitalised future is appetite for risk, which means that we need the Catapult programme that will take on some of the ‘risk with innovation’ for start-ups, especially in collaborative ventures where “the government can partially share that risk in a partnership between industry, government and academia. Its intention is to get industrial innovations commercialised. Business may not want to take the financial risk, while a partner university department may not have the ability to commercialise, and so you need this enabling process in the middle. ‘Made Smarter’ is saying that if we share between us the government responsibility for policy with industry’s expertise in technology, then we should see an expansion that is of benefit to everybody. If the benefit is to reduce pollution then it is a social benefit. If it is to make manufacturing more productive and competitive, and creates more orders and exports, then that creates more jobs and prosperity.”
Doing nothing in today’s manufacturing climate, says Brambley “is not an option – because standing still is, in fact, going backwards relative to our competitors who are moving forward. And that’s really the essence of the ‘Made Smarter’ review. This is what best practice looks like if everybody buys into it. And don’t forget that for every job you create in manufacturing, you create two or three other jobs as a consequence. But it’s very difficult to get that message across and there’s always resistance to change.”