Lessons from the decline of Japanese electronics manufacturing in the UK for the automotive industry
Although around 10,000 manufacturing jobs in Japanese electronics companies in the UK were lost in the 1990s-2000s, about the same number have been added, either created by Hitachi Rail or in the automotive or air conditioning sectors. Japanese electronics companies such as Sony, Fujitsu, Panasonic, NEC, Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi still all employ thousands of people in the UK.
It is a story of how industrial policy cannot ultimately stop product obsolescence, shifts of manufacturing to cheaper locations or the transformation from mass manufacturing of products to supply chain ecosystems providing solutions and services. Recent investment from Japan in the UK is in services and infrastructure, for the domestic UK market, and at least for now, the EU. But this has meant fewer jobs in the areas that voted Brexit.
Bunging £10s of millions at Nissan to compensate for tariffs was not going to stop these shifts. Over 10% of the 7,000 Nissan employ in the UK are working in design centres, not on the factory floor. Being a gateway to the EU now, even in manufacturing, needs regulatory alignment and free movement of people so suppliers can visit and base themselves at client sites and provide services and ship prototypes around the region.
The shift to electric vehicles means the car companies have to cooperate more than ever with ICT and electronics companies. Many of these ICT and electronics companies have joint European HQs spread across the UK, Netherlands or Germany, with senior management and teams scattered across the region, working virtually or at customer and partner sites. They have also integrated back office and technical support into cheaper locations such as Portugal or Poland.
Some examples of the history of Japanese electronics companies in the UK over the past 30 years:
Fujitsu is the biggest Japanese employer in the UK with over 8,000 employees, 2,000 down on a few years ago, as it grows delivery and support centres in Portugal, South Africa and India and downsizes in the UK. It acquired 80% of UK’s ICL in 1990 (increasing to 100% 1998). ICL had 2,000 UK employees, 26,000 worldwide, with mainframe and PC factories in Letchworth, Manchester and the Midlands. ICL was born out of 1960s industrial policy – the British government had a 10% stake in it for a while. To this day, Fujitsu provides a lot of government IT infrastructure and services. Its last computer factory in Europe, in Augsburg in Germany, will shut down in 2019, retaining manufacturing in Japan only.
Hitachi used to employ around 1,000 people in its factory in Aberdare, Wales, making cathode ray TVs, video recorders and microwave ovens. It was shut in 2001, blaming low price competition from Asia. Hitachi has since shifted away from consumer products to infrastructure. In the UK it acquired the now stalled Horizon Nuclear Power projects in Wylfa and Oldbury and set up Hitachi Rail in the UK as the global headquarters with a new factory in Newton Aycliffe, employing nearly 2,000 people.
Hitachi employs another 4,000 people in the UK services sector – for example credit and loans company Hitachi Capital, IT consultants Hitachi Vantara and Hitachi Consulting and Vantec, providing logistics for Nissan.
Sony came to the UK in 1973, and had 2 plants in Pencoed making cathode ray TVs, employing 1,800 by the 1990s. As these started to shut down, Pencoed transformed itself into an innovation centre, developing and producing broadcast and professional equipment, employing 500-600 people.
Sony has been restructuring across Europe recently, consolidating back office functions into cheaper regions. It was still manufacturing DVDs in Enfield in the UK but this was shifted to Austria in 2017/8, reducing capital in UK by over £250m. It still employs nearly 2,000 in its music, home entertainment and interactive businesses in the UK.
Ricoh still has a factory in Telford (and two other plants in UK), employing the same number of people in 2018 as in 1991 – around 700 – but the product range has shifted from faxes to printers and consumables.
Mitsubishi Electric acquired Apricot Computers in 1990, with a plant in Glenrothes and R&D in Birmingham, employing 442 in 1991. Glenrothes was shut in 1999, blaming cheap competition in Asia. It still has manufacturing in the UK, employing nearly 1,000 people (many of whom are non-UK EU citizens) in Livingston, at its airconditioning plant.
Panasonic, formerly known as Matsushita, had many plants in UK from 1970s to 1990s, employing 1,621 in Cardiff (TVs, microwaves), 469 in Gwent (electric typewriters, carphones), 160 in Port Talbot (components for TVs, video recorders, microwaves) and 63 in Reading (fax machines). Most Matsushita/Panasonic plants in UK shut down in early 2000s, with production shifting to Eastern Europe. 1 plant remains in Wales, employing 400 people, manufacturing microwave ovens but also conducting R&D into fuel cell technology. Panasonic has acquired Belgian IT company Zetes and Spanish automotive supplier Ficosa recently.
NEC is also shifting into IT services via European acquisitions. It used to have a semiconductor plant in Livingston (Silicon Glen, remember that?) which employed 1200 by 2001, when it shut down. NEC UK employees now number over 1000 again thanks to the acquisition of Northgate Public Services, in 2018.
Oki Electric were relatively late in shutting down their Cumbernauld printer plant in 2018 – and now all production is in Asia. JVCKenwood shut down their East Kilbride TV/CD player factory in 2008 and shifted production to Poland. Pioneer closed its CD player/TV factory in Wakefield in 2009. Toshiba had a factory in Plymouth, which used to make TVs, video recorders, but is now owned by a US company and makes air conditioners. Sharp (now owned by a Taiwanese company) still has a factory in Wrexham as does Brother.
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