When something works its brilliant. A bit like tech. Great when it works. These past few weeks and months however all has not been well. Namely, with China and the rapidly spreading coronavirus. It has resulted in factory closures across the country.

This brings with it many problems with the supply of good to the UK and all over the world. Our industry is not immune from this in any way. This is an outbreak that is going to be with us all year. Its time to understand that its going to spread, it will get worse, and there will be economic consequences.

I also think that its a good time to talk about domestic supply chains.

Incredible fragility

Brexit was never going to stop imports and exports. They might get more expensive, but it wouldn’t stop goods reaching our shores from across Europe or the rest of the world. The US/China trade war was perhaps the most serious economic flashpoint in the world, but that wafted away to some degree, and ultimately it would not have stopped trade around the world.

In the end, it was a thing we could not see which brought into the spotlight the incredible fragility of the global supply chain. In the UK, and in our fenestration industry rely on China and other Asian nations to produce and ship here goods that we simply cannot make for the same price here in the UK. Setup costs for factories are far cheaper, and the price-per-unit versus the UK PPU is so much less that you’re almost forced into using China. Its all smooth sailing when everything is operating fine. But throw in something as simple as a virus to the mix and that all comes grinding to a halt.

I was speaking to a number of heads of companies last week who were explaining to me what the situation was, not only for them, but for the wider industry. Some have healthy stocks of what they need, some do not and are already issuing warnings to customers about what to buy and how much they can buy. Some are lucky enough to have their Chinese factories back up and running, some are not, and some may not be that far away from a crisis point.

Most though agreed that economically we’re only at the start of this story, and the pinch is yet to be felt, but that it was also going to have a large damaging effect on the whole. Not great news for an industry that was finally looking forward to a 2020 without incident or shock or surprise.

I’ll be looking at the ramifications of what might happen over the coming few weeks as the spread of COVID-19 widens and why we do have to take this seriously. But right now, I think UK fenestration should be looking at domestic production and what more it can do at home.

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British boost

Events such as coronavirus have shown how quickly chaos can be sown to global supply chains. In the decades to come, we’re going to have more disease threats, more political uncertainty and you never know, domestic problems in China. Not only that, some have questions the confidence levels in Chinese manufacturing after this.

So, why not look to produce more of what UK fenestration needs on these islands? You cannot help but wonder that if we made more here, such as window and door hardware, glass, bevels, IGUs etc, that we would be less worried as an industry about our supply chains. For me there would be a number of benefits, whilst obviously having to navigate higher prices.

Firstly, there is the securing of the supply chain. We would no longer be at the mercy of foreign or global events that could cause disruption. Thats not to say there wouldn’t be events here that could cause disruption, but in the case of coronavirus right now, if we didn’t have to rely on Chinese factories to make and ship what we need then we wouldn’t be as concerned.

Think about what that would do for jobs and investment here in the UK. There is absolutely nothing wrong with supporting your domestic economy. Thats not to say that everything should be pulled from other countries, but in a post-Brexit Britain, it would make sense to support domestic manufacturing so we could not only support British business, but export our high quality products around the world more too.

It would help safeguard our manufacturing future. More and more jobs being created are not in manufacturing. We’re relying more and more on overseas manufacturing. I was speaking to a friend of mine the other day who raised the point that perhaps in a couple of generations, much of what manufacturing we have left could be exported, and we lose those vital skills and become reliant on other countries. Whilst thats workable when things are quiet and stable, when something like a virus comes along and shuts down factories in the areas that we rely on, that poses a major problem as we won’t have a domestic backup. We have to have a strong British manufacturing sector to support our fenestration sector and all other industry.

I fully appreciate whilst I’m talking about this that to make something here costs a lot more than it does in places like China. If we were to produce and consume more British products, especially in fenestration, then we would have to accept that we’re going to have to pay more. Not an easy pill to swallow in an industry that has always heavily relied on selling on price rather than quality. But it is that quality that we could rely on. I continue to believe that products made in the UK are some of the world leaders. We have very high manufacturing standards, a heritage that backs that up, and high levels of innovation.

To start producing more here would take months, 6 at least, to move a factory from overseas to the UK and start producing. So to being a process of boosting British fenestration manufacturing would be a long term goal, not one where we could hope to circumvent any production problems from overseas caused by this virus. In the short term we have to hope that things get back to normal as soon as possible in China. In the long term though, this should be a wake up call for our industry and British manufacturing as a whole.

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