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16 February, 2006 - 08:11 By Staff Reporter

China’s long lead times and quality issues hand opportunity to local manufacturers

East of England engineering and manufacturing companies are biting back at the Chinese dragon in its den.East of England engineering and manufacturing companies are biting back at the Chinese dragon in its den.

International companies previously seduced by China’s low cost, high volume offering have started reporting widescale problems with long lead times and poor quality of components.

Astute businesses in the East of England have swooped on the opportunity and are marketing themselves more aggressively as a viable alternative to the Chinese.

One executive with a £100m turnover manufacturing company in the region mainly servicing the space & defence sectors said: “It has not been easy maintaining such a strong manufacturing base in the East of England because of skills shortages. We are having to recruit engineers and technicians from all over the world.

“What we are finding, however, is that the low cost argument China has used to dominate orders from companies all over the world is proving something of a myth.

“If lead times are too long and parts are arriving in poor shape and have to be sent back and remade, then the initial low cost of manufacturing in China is a false economy for their customers.”

This new spirit of adventure is gripping other manufacturing and engineering companies in Cambridge and Norfolk.

Fred Pain, general manager at Norfolk precision engineering company Acro said: “We have first hand knowledge that some of the products from China are on long lead times and subject to high volume orders and some of our clients have had costly quality issues with imported components.”

For over 30 years Acro has machined parts for industries such as the medical, automotive, defence, architectural, hi tech and energy industries with projects ranging from components for bomb disposal robots to architectural parts for the Jubilee Line station.

But it was increasingly seeing the value and volume of its work decline and decided it must change its thinking in order to survive.

So instead of giving in to a market that has been able to outprice European engineering rivals thanks to cheap labour, cheaper steel and far less legislation, Acro called in Norfolk-based specialist technology marketing company Energi Technical Limited and went on the attack.

Pain said: “I took the view that if China was winning business from the UK, then that simply meant that China had been better at marketing its engineering and we needed to sharpen up our act in order to compete.

A new website reflecting Acro’s ability to be flexible on volumes and responsive on delivery allied to an aggressive e-marketing campaign has brought a strong global response, says Pain.

“We have had enquiries from France, Holland, the US and even China! We even had an enquiry from Rolls Royce. Several of these inquiries have turned into important new customers and we are definitely seeing a turnaround.”

Richard Blackburn, managing director of Energi, added: “It’s very easy to start thinking that it’s impossible to compete with low cost production from China.

“In reality, cost is not always the bigger issue for a manufacturing company.

“They also need to be sure of the quality of their components and they need reliable deliveries. Very often, they also need a supplier who can be flexible when it comes to both the component design and shipping volumes.

“European manufacturing is starting to wake up to this and I think UK engineering can win this business, if it puts out the right message.”

Engineering organisations in the UK have also been hammering out the message that cheap in China doesn’t always mean cheerful in China and that East of England’s high value manufacturing base is a better bet because practitioners can add innovation to the initial design process that makes a product more valuable to global markets.

But even this high ground is being stormed by the Chinese. China is now producing two million Research & Development graduates a year in a bid to improve its ability to add a high value message to its low cost mantra.

East of England companies insist there is one square of the battlefield that will remain firmly planted with the Union Jack – the area of consistent quality and getting it right first time.

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