UK manufacturing & electronics in rude health...

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

07 February 2019

Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT

Along with many of you, I recently visited Southern Manufacturing & Electronics 2019 in Farnborough, the first major exhibition in the sector's trade show calendar. The show was refreshingly big, busy and buzzy – with exhibitors encouragingly and overwhelmingly positive and upbeat about the show, the industry and their business. Bravo, Southern – and UK manufacturing!

I've worked in electronics, manufacturing, engineering and technology for almost two decades, on the supplier side, in agencies and now in the media, giving me a uniquely broad perspective on the industry. During that time, I've visited many exhibitions, both here in the UK and in Europe. I've worked on stands, run press at shows, walked the aisles to evaluate shows or make connections – and now attended as a member of the press.

Sadly, for much of that time, exhibitions here in the UK have often been a depressing experience. When I came into the industry, experienced event pros told me stories of a healthy burgeoning exhibition culture – but the dot-com and telecoms crashes of the early 2000s hit the sector hard. The industrial, manufacturing and engineering expos I attended were much diminished – with smaller, simpler stands, less floor space and, crucially, far fewer visitors. Budgets were squeezed, and smaller engineering teams were under pressure to deliver more, faster, making it tougher to justify time out of the office – while at the same time, the emergence of the web gave them an excuse not to get out there and talk to people face-to-face.

Visitors who had bad experiences at shows lowered their expectations or didn't return, often sharing negative perspectives with their peers and colleagues. Similarly, exhibitors became disillusioned with underwhelming shows, poor results and low footfall – investing less in floor space, booth properties and how they manned the stands. This downward spiral became somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The laments I heard over and over from exhibitors were that UK engineers didn't leave their desks and come to shows anymore, that UK exhibitions were no longer what they once were – and it was hard to argue with the view that there were no good UK trade shows in our sector anymore. Especially when big shows in Europe (for instance, electronica in the impressive Messe showground of Munich, Germany) often put UK show culture to shame.

In fact, when I first attended Southern, almost 15 years ago, it was a small, cramped regional show, in a temporary marque (‘the tent’) – staffed by the usual downbeat exhibitors. This year was my first visit for a few years, and it helps that it is now housed in the impressive, purpose-built 20,000m2 Farnborough International Exhibition Centre – but what a difference!

Despite the chaos, confusion and uncertainty of Brexit, the worrying spectre of a declining PMI, and tumbling business optimism according to the latest CBI Industrial Trends Survey, the exhibition was fully sold out – with an all-time high of 800 exhibitors and healthy year-over-year growth in floor space. And crucially, the aisles were packed with visitors too – and there were queues of cars into the car parks and delegates at the registration desks. Talking to show organisers, ETES on the middle day, the show had record pre-show registrations – and visitor numbers were on track to be the highest in the show’s 20 year history.

Most encouragingly, every exhibitor I spoke to was refreshingly positive and upbeat about their experience at the show – but also, the industry and prospects for their business. Hopefully, this – along with the ecsn’s positive assessment of electronic components industry at the end of 2018 – is a sign of great things to come for our vital industry!


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