Manufacturing decline not always as analysed

Posted on June 18th, 2016 in Economy,Ford,Holden,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I have just finished reading a book on the manufacturing decline that has occurred over the last 60-odd years in the UK. It’s called The Slow Death of British Industry and is subtitled A Sixty Year Suicide 1952 – 2012. It covers, decade by decade and industry by industry, the decay in making things in what was once a great manufacturing country.

The industries it covers include car manufacture, ship building, aircraft design and construction – and also more obscure industries like pharmaceuticals. It describes the companies that fell by the wayside, were absorbed by others, or ended up being split into so many entities that their whole reason for existence simply disappeared…

Companies like Dorman Long (builder of the Sydney Harbour Bridge), Parsons (the inventers of the steam turbine) – and car brands like Wolseley, Triumph and Jowett.

The book catalogues in excruciating detail the union bloody-mindedness, the inept management, the worthless interventions of government, the confusion in direction and execution.

And visiting Britain’s wonderful technological museums (as I have done) where you can see Concorde; the SR.N4 hovercraft; the remains of one of the crashed Comets; the beautiful Jaguar E-type; the fastest steam locomotive in the world (the Mallard); the world’s first code-breaking electronic computers; the Sinclair electronic calculator – it makes this whole story of UK manufacturing success and decline come alive.

But there are some things missing in the analysis. They’re the same things missing in many analyses that occur here in Australia of our similar (but smaller scale) decline in domestic manufacturing.

Firstly, quoting massive reductions in the share of employment that manufacturing comprises in the economy is to miss the point that such changes have occurred in all first world countries. For example, that’s the even the case in countries like Germany and France that are often cited as manufacturing powerhouses we should be emulating.

In much the same way as primary industry (farming and mining) once dominated employment, these days, tertiary (service-based) industries now create most employment. That decline in the share of employment held in manufacturing jobs is exactly what you’d expect with greater mechanisation, use of robotics and so on. We wouldn’t want to be hand-building all our cars, one at a time, as was once done. Productivity would be terrible and cars would be unaffordable. So, of course machines will replace people, manufacturing productivity will improve and employment in the sector will decrease as a proportion of total employment.

Secondly, ignored is that the decline in local manufacturing is based entirely on a reduction in demand for those goods. If the pubic, the buyers, choose not to buy locally made goods – and instead buy imports – then of course (unless they are competitive in exports), local manufacture will decline.

In other words, to be brutal about it, uncompetitive domestic companies go broke. They may be uncompetitive in technology, in branding, in price, in innovation – in all cases, consumers vote with their wallets.

So we hold a major collective responsibility for manufacturing in our country declining. The person who blames the Federal Government of Australia for the loss of car manufacturing in this country – that is, the loss of Toyota, Ford and Holden – often has a Nissan Patrol in their driveway, or a Honda, or a BMW. The person who complains that the last Australian-built washing machine recently came off the production line is the same person who has never bought an Australian-made washing machine.

Thirdly, and as an extension of this idea, globalisation, free trade agreements and geographical shrinking of the world through information technology has increased the flexibility with which consumers can make choices. I source electronic modules on eBay from China; they’re bought from either the manufacturer or wholesaler of these products. I can remember when some such modules, able to be sourced only from local retailers, cost me over ten times as much and would take a month to be delivered.

I can very much empathise on a technological history level with the loss of once great companies, once great manufacturing enterprises.

But that’s a completely different perspective from saying that we should all have paid more for inferior goods– and so on a societal level have had a lower standard of living – to prop up manufacturing companies that had become uncompetitive.

I think that in the future, commentaries on the decline of manufacturing will appear to be as relevant as those that bemoan the fact that most people no longer till farms for a living.



The giants finally stir

Posted on May 21st, 2008 in diesel,Driving Emotion,Economy,Ford,Holden,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

In August last year I wrote:

Read it again.

Less than a year later:

–  Mitsubishi manufacturing in Australia has gone broke

– Holden has said that within 2 years it will release diesel, hybrid and possibly four cylinder turbo versions of the Commodore. The company may also build smaller cars in Australia.

– Ford has released a ‘going on as the same’ FG Falcon, and then – oops, gosh, the world has changed! – announced a diesel engine version within 2 years.

– Toyota has said that they’re eager to build a Camry hybrid in Australia.

I wrote then :

The local manufacturers – especially Holden and Ford – need to show with locally developed product in the showroom that they can produce cars that appeal to more than Ford/Holden performance car enthusiasts, that they not only understand but also actively embrace the significant social change that is now occurring. Otherwise the Australian car will continue down the road to anachronistic irrelevance – it’s already on that path and accelerating as fast as its powerful and thirsty engine can take it….

At last, at last, Holden and Ford are stirring. Hopefully it won’t be too late.

The core design principle of kinetic design…

Posted on April 29th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Ford,Holden,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Back when the Holden VE Commodore was released, I was very disappointed that styling clearly dominated engineering in a way that I thought reflected the worst excesses of the past.

I wrote:

Quoted in Go-Auto E-News, designer Mike Simcoe had this to say about the exterior:

“It’s good, confident design. It’s well proportioned and it pushes quality to a level that we’ve never seen before. The interior package for VT was king of that in the market here – and this car continues that. The volume efficiency of the package – that’s the exterior volume to interior size – is just as aggressive as VT was. We made a big song and dance back then about that. And this car is the same.

“The track is a little bit wider with this new architecture, so from the ground up we’ve been able to put the wheels wider on the car.

“It’s an international design. You can’t say ‘European’ any more, because there’s no ‘European design’, or ‘Japanese design’ – it’s a truly international design in its form language. It’s genuinely a rear-wheel drive proportioned car which is something we hadn’t been able to push as hard in the past. And it’s much more formal. The form language that’s on the car is internal Holden. We’ve been trying to do something like this seriously for a long time.”

Off the line…

Posted on October 19th, 2007 in Driving Emotion,Holden,Mitsubishi,Power by Julian Edgar

The week that I am writing this we have two press cars. It’s unusual to have two new cars simultaneously; in fact, it’s something I normally strive to avoid unless I am interstate for a period. Then it’s OK because those cars are usually not able to be obtained in my home state – so better to work harder for a short time in order to sample more.

One of the cars is a Mitsubishi 380 VRX 5-speed manual and the other is an automatic 5-speed Holden Epica 2.5.

Both are front-wheel drive but the 380 has 175kW and 343Nm in a body that weighs 1590kg, and the Epica has 115kW and 237Nm and weighs 1500kg.

Clearly, then, the VRX is going to be the faster of the two cars, not only because of its higher flywheel figures outweigh the slightly greater mass but also because its manual transmission has less losses than the Epica’s auto trans.

But is the VRX faster? Not a test in the world is going to show the Epica as being faster than the VRX (or the equivalent in other comparative cars) and yet as is so often the case, the power, torque and mass figures tell a story that is massively incomplete…

It so happened that my wife and I ended up in driving the two cars at the same time. I was in the Epica, she in the VRX – and in front of us a red traffic light. Both in pole position – and when the light turned green, we went for it.

Trouble is, the Epica was ahead all the way to 80 km/h…

Next red light, Georgina got a better launch – but she still took until 60 km /h to get past the Epica.

Simply, the power and torque of the 380 was so great that the traction control kept shutting down the engine as wheelspin occurred.

The same story could be repeated with lots of different cars – those with auto transmissions and insufficient power to break traction (or, to put it another way, a lower torque curve that extends further up the rev range) can be very quick off the line in real world conditions. On the other hand, manual trans cars with bulk off-the-line torque can be relatively slow.

I remember the disbelief when former colleague Michael Knowling wrote of an STi WRX that a Corolla was quicker away from traffic lights; an absolutely true story symptomatic of the STi being the opposite case to the VRX – no bottom-end torque at all…

No matter what figures might show, for real-world quick getaways, very little beats an auto trans matched to an engine that won’t spin the driving wheels.

Will the VE Commodore prove me wrong?

Posted on September 26th, 2007 in Driving Emotion,Economy,Holden,Makes & Models,Opinion,Power,Reviews by Julian Edgar

ve-commodore.bmpMost of our Australian readers won’t be old enough to remember the release of the 1978 VB Commodore – and to be honest, at the time I wasn’t taking much notice of cars myself. However, it was common contemporary lore that the VB represented the new, small and modern family Holden while Ford, with the XD Falcon, persisted with the larger, outmoded type of traditional family car.

With the increasing price of fuel, it appeared that Holden was onto a winner with the Commodore.

But in fact they weren’t onto a winner at all: the VN model of a decade later went to a larger – especially wider – body, initially perched on the narrow track of the previous series.

Most pundits would have thought – and in fact did think – that Holden was heading in the right direction with their smaller original Commodore. It seemed the correct car for the times and in comparison, the face-lifted XC that became the XD looked like a big mistake. (In fact, a few years after this, I can remember looking at an open XD wagon and wondering who on earth needed a load area so enormous.)

But new car buyers didn’t agree with the smaller VB-VL Commodore strategy – Holden would have sold more Commodores if they’d stuck with the larger body all the way through.

Jumping ship…

Posted on September 7th, 2007 in Driving Emotion,Holden,Makes & Models,Opinion by Julian Edgar

epica.jpgAs we all know, successive models of the one car tend to get larger.

A Corolla is now bigger than the original Crown; the new-age Mini is vastly bigger than the original; the current VE Commodore is very much larger than the first VB model.

Bigger is apparently better, until the size has grown so much that there’s a created place for a new, smaller model – like in the Corolla’s case, the Echo and then the Yaris. (Or in the Honda Civic’s case, the Jazz – there are many examples of the phenomenon.)

But the Holden Commodore has proved rather problematic. The newer, smaller models designed to slot in where the Commodore once was have not been very successful – the Vectra being the expensive case in point. So now we have the much cheaper Epica, which in terms of cars like the original sized VB-VL model Commodores, is actually large indeed. (But despite its size, it’s still smaller than the current VE Commodore…)

So what does it take for a long-time Commodore owner to finally jump ship? You know, the older person who has driven Commodore models continuously since their 1978 release? (For Commodores and Falcons, it wouldn’t surprise me if people in the ‘have-always-driven-them’ category make up half of the current private buyers.)

Do these people just religiously follow the upgrading in size, the upgrading in power, and the upgrading in weight? Or at some point, perhaps now with children having left the nest, do they say to themselves that the new iteration of the model simply doesn’t suit, and it’s time to get a car that isn’t smaller than their current model – it just isn’t yet again bigger. To step out of a VZ Commodore, not into a VE but into an Epica, for example.