by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

“Well-regarded nationally and internationally, Northern Ireland has a proud manufacturing history, famed for among other things, our ship building heritage, linen, aircraft and tractor manufacturing, as well as food production.  Responsible for one in four of all jobs in our economy and £9.


9 billion GVA – around a third of the economy – it is a stand-out industry, one vital to our economic prospects.  The manufacturing sector however is at something of a crossroads. The fourth industrial revolution or ‘Industry 4.0’, which refers to the evolution of data exchange in manufacturing technology and the advent of smart factories, is changing the playing field for manufacturers as businesses begin to rely on the Internet of Things and connected devices as much as people. 

Against this backdrop, businesses are contending with various geopolitical uncertainties, many of which of course are Brexit related.   With the contraction of sterling, importing is more expensive; a pinch being felt all the more by manufacturers who are also dealing with rising input costs. This too is adding impetus to local businesses to invest in new technology and processes to drive efficiency, innovation and automation to keep costs down long-term. 

As well as currency fluctuations and technology trends, manufacturers are keeping a close watch on what new trade deals could fall out from Brexit negotiations. A key cog in the pinwheel of success for our manufacturing sector is its ability to grow outwards into new markets in Europe and further afield. According to our research however uncertainty around Brexit is putting expansion plans on hold for many businesses. The latest wave of our AIB Brexit Sentiment Index reveals that 2 out of 3 businesses in NI that had pre-Brexit investment plans have either reviewed, postponed or cancelled those plans. I’ve no doubt that the absence of political leadership and a functioning NI Assembly is not helping business confidence in already challenging times.

Where there are challenges however, there is also opportunity. Progressive and specialist manufacturing is on the up as more and more local operators invest in their products and services. We are grateful to our customers Keylite Roof Windows, Quad-X and Northern Hydraulics for using this platform to share their insights in this regard. When reading their stories, it’s clear that two key investment strands underpin their forwarding planning – a commitment to investment in innovation and investment in talent. It is this focus that we at the Bank are keen to emulate and promote. Our support of progressive manufacturing includes backing for investment in plant processes, technology and training. 

Access to sufficient working capital is also vital for manufacturers who are modernising their operations to become more competitive. We have evolved our own offering in light of industry trends and offer financial support for a wide range of assets, not just traditional hardware equipment but for the associated software programmes that also deliver value.  Likewise, invoicing should be flexible to fit within your bespoke business needs.  We adapt a partnership approach with our customers – getting to know their objectives and long-term plans. It’s an approach that has stood us in good stead and we have a proud history of delivering funding solutions that support manufacturers who are seeking to refinance, investing in expansion or making acquisitions. This partnership approach also means we can provide the financial structure that gives you the liquidity to grow and adapt to market changes.” 

Orla McGerr is Corporate Manager at First Trust Bank and leads the bank’s manufacturing team, supporting business growth for companies right across the sector.

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