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Booming UK electronics sector fuels manufacturing growth

Published: 22 March 2019 - Carly Wills

The UK electronics sector experienced the fastest growth of any manufacturing sector in 2018, according to a new report by Santander and Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation.

Despite representing less than five per cent of UK manufacturing output, the sector generated £19.4bn in turnover and £8.4bn in gross value added (GVA) in 2017. After a period of decline that started in the early 2000s, the sector experienced a major rebound in growth in 2017 and 2018 - up 4.4 per cent and 12.4 per cent respectively.

In what continues to be a very competitive sector, there are four key areas which the report identifies as presenting opportunities for continued growth for UK firms:

  • Developing the products required for the increasing number of new smarter devices
  • Capitalising on the rise of digital medicines
  • Focusing on export demand from relatively untapped markets like Asia
  • The roll-out of 5G across the UK’s main cities

Paul Brooks, head of UK manufacturing at Santander UK, says: “The UK electronics sector continues to punch above its weight and, with the fast growth in technology, is well placed to cement itself as a core manufacturing sector. Increased automation and new technologies are linked to the success, but the sector needs to remain focused on growth, being agile and developing cutting-edge products to drive increasingly powerful and smart digital technologies. Santander is committed to supporting UK electronics firms as they look to invest for growth and capitalise on export opportunities in markets such as Asia.”

The report warns that despite its strengthening fundamentals, there is sustained competition from overseas firms, particularly from China. The sector also continues to import much more than it exports: the sector imports 50 per cent of supply and exports over a quarter (26 per cent) of output, making it the most import intensive in UK manufacturing. In 2017, the electronics trade deficit stood at £22.6bn.

To counter market risks, UK electronics firms should target opportunities such as 5G and digital medicines as well as latent export demand from Asia and the Middle East. The UK will roll out 5G in major cities in 2019, for instance, with full implementation by the end of 2020. It is estimated that download speeds will move from the 300Mbit/s to 10Gbit/s - a 33 times improvement.

In terms of exports, while market penetration in ‘technology rich’ Europe and North America is high for consumer electronics, developing countries represent a relatively untapped market for UK manufacturers. Asia now accounts for 20 per cent of UK electronics exports, up from 14 per cent of 2007, and the top 10 high-growth export markets are all located in the region.

Seamus Nevin, chief economist at Make UK, says: “Competition for global high-tech supremacy is increasing but these results show that UK manufacturers are among the world leaders. The sector has experienced the fastest growth of any manufacturing sector in 2018 and contributed a disproportionately large amount to UK GDP.

“This great British success story is well poised to continue to prosper with even bigger opportunities for growth coming from the burgeoning market for smarter devices, the rise of digital medicines and the roll-out of 5G. But the sector will need support from government and finance if it is to capitalise on the export opportunities coming from Asia and elsewhere.”

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