Returning to the NEC in Birmingham, the Subcon show embarked on its forty-third year this week. Having taken place over the course of three days, Subcon once again co-located with both The Engineer Expo and the Advanced Manufacturing Show, offering visitors the opportunity to visit three different shows under one roof.
Subcon 2019 came just days after all three titles were sold to the Mark Allen Group by Centaur Media PLC, raising a certain degree of uncertainty among both exhibitors and visitors surrounding the success of the show under new ownership. However, Subcon’s consistently strong turnout has seen it long-cemented as a key event in the engineering industry’s calendar - a reputation that would be difficult to unhinge, no matter its proprietor.
With an emphasis on introductions between buyers and suppliers of subcontract engineering services, Subcon is a valuable resource to those who attend or exhibit annually. Whereas similar events such as Southern Manufacturing have a regional focus, Subcon is inclusive of the wider UK industry and also features a dedicated international supplier zone. Not unlike its regional counterparts, Subcon also serves up a range of conferences hosted by industry experts, where visitors can enjoy valuable insight on the engineering niches that interest them personally.
It became very clear early on that this year’s show lacked the magnitude of Subcon’s past efforts. The size of the floorplan was much smaller than I had previously witnessed; nonetheless, the amount of visitors arriving at the show seemed consistent with its predecessors. I had attended on the first day of the event - a period that can often feel like a ‘warm up’ to optimum attendance on day two - yet the various corridors were already full of visitors browsing stands and engaging in conversations with the exhibitors.
After getting the lay of the land, I stopped for a chat with Neil Turner, key account manager at professional hygiene specialists Essity UK Ltd. As a global hygiene products manufacturer offering everything from washroom supplies to technical wiping & cleaning products, Essity UK Ltd’s product range straddles a number of sectors including engineering.
‘It’s our first year exhibiting at Subcon,’ Neil told me. ‘As we’re a global brand, we exhibit at a number of other shows, but our range of products isn’t suitable across the board - we felt that Subcon’s target audience reflects the more generalised product range we offer.’
‘Although it’s still a bit of an unknown, the footfall has been steady so far and we’re hoping for even bigger things later today and tomorrow.’
Ben Yeardley, director of CIE Electronics, was also impressed with this year’s show. Established for 53 years, CIE Electronics are a manufacturer of custom-built cables, connectors and mouldings, which are used in a wide variety of products ranging from fruit machines through to cars. Therefore, shows like Subcon enable CIE Electronics to promote their products to a range of vertical markets at one time.
‘We find that this is an extremely good show for us - many of the people we speak to are in a position to buy,’ explained Ben. ‘We’re doing really well as a company and it’s great to have conversations with interesting people who are looking to do business.’
And what about the footfall on the first day?
‘It’s been great so far - like any show, there are slow and busy times, but the conversations come thick and fast during the busier periods,’ Ben clarified. ‘We’re very happy with the leads we’re getting, as the people we’re speaking to are genuinely interested in what we have to offer.’
Last but by no means least, I stopped in to see Qimtek members JRE Precision. Based in Loughborough, JRE Precision are a precision machining company who specialise in extremely complex and intricate components. In addition, JRE Precision have their own product range of regulators and hydrogen technology, which have previously led them to exhibit at events that are targeted towards these sectors. JRE’s Alex McKay explained that they were now exhibiting at Subcon to promote the subcontract side of their business.
‘We’re at Subcon this year to find more customers who use subcontract machining services, although we’re also keen to discuss our own product range,’ he told me. ‘We’ve had a lot of interest along the machining side, which ties in with the audience that the show attracts.’
‘So far we’ve had a lot of really interesting chats with visitors - we supply our services into a lot of different industries, which means that we’re not really limited to who we can speak to.’
Indeed, the majority of exhibitors that I spoke to over the course of the event seemed assured that this was the right show for them to meet potential new customers. From a visitor’s perspective, there was certainly a lot to see, with plenty of machine tools and 3D printers in action - what’s more, the breadth of services offered under the subcontract umbrella was vast, meaning that visiting purchasers are able to access a vast array of suppliers in one place.
Conferences & Seminars:
During my time at Subcon, I was fortunate enough to find the time to attend four different conferences advertised in the programme. Having researched the lineup prior to my visit, I was pleased to see that once again, the seminars on offer reflected a wide variety of engineering niches. I personally feel that the importance of keeping your ear to the ground is paramount and there is no better way to do this than to hear directly from the industry experts.
Digitalisation and Delivering the Industrial Strategy: Dr Lina Huertas - Chief Technologist - Technology Strategy & Tim Andrews - The MTC:
The first conference on my agenda was hosted by Dr Lina Huertas and Tim Andrews, who together explained the digital future of the manufacturing industry. There’s no disputing that Industry 4.0 has become one of the most important industry topics in recent years, with many companies considering if and how to embrace the innovation brought about by the latest technology. However, as Dr Huertas explained, factories of the future will become self-aware, whilst design & development will be digitalised, meaning that it’s important that manufacturing businesses embrace these changes to keep up with industry demands. Tim Andrews was then able to offer some first steps for companies looking to adopt digitalisation, as well as providing a complete action plan to see this through to full fruition.
Rail Opportunities and Support For SMEs: Martin Little - Commercial Director, BCRRE Rail Alliance:
With over 470 members, BCRRE Rail Alliance is a B2B networking organisation that supports and builds the UK rail sector’s capacity. Therefore, there could be no-one better equipped to deliver this conference than commercial director Martin Little. The rail industry, he explained, is notoriously difficult to break into, meaning that additional help is often required to get your foot in the door. However, the UK also has the fastest growing railway in Europe, meaning that there’s never been a better time for suppliers to consider diversifying into the rail sector. Martin’s comprehensive breakdown of the imminent changes to rail technology, as well as the major upcoming opportunities available within this field, made his seminar invaluable to existing and prospective rail vendors.
Keynote: Ben Fletcher - Executive Director of Communication, Government & Strategy - Make UK:
One of the most fascinating conferences of the day was given by Ben Fletcher from Make UK - formerly EEF. Providing his vast audience with an overview of the issues currently facing the UK engineering & manufacturing sector, such as Brexit and the skills gap, Ben was also able to offer reassurance that the public is fully supportive of UK industry. Whereas the UK currently ranks as the ninth largest manufacturing nation, Ben explained that the public wants us to be in the top five - a feat which will be largely unachievable if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal. He also emphasised the importance of encouraging diversity in order to help the industry grow - a necessity at a time where a third of all engineering vacancies are hard to fill. Ben’s seminar sparked lively debate among the audience - perhaps unsurprising given the strong sentiments felt about the subject matter at hand.
Additive Manufacturing: Has It Entered the Mainstream?: Jeremy Pullin - Director of Additive Manufacturing - Sartorius Group:
Jeremy Pullin’s entertaining conference on additive manufacturing was both humorous and informative, with some refreshing views on additive manufacturing’s place within the engineering sphere at large. He explained that additive manufacturing is a difficult subject to talk about, owing to the fact that it’s an umbrella term for a much larger family of processes. In turn, this leaves many confused about what AM actually encompasses. After detailing the advancements in additive manufacturing, including the wide range of materials which can be used and its advancements into large batch production, Jeremy concluded that although these technologies are here to stay, they are not to be thought of as a replacement for more conventional manufacturing methods. Instead, AM compliments what is already available and fills the gaps, with its strengths countering the weaknesses of traditional manufacturing processes and vice versa.
Subcon 2019 - A Final Thought:
This year’s offering has perhaps seemed a more pared-down version of Subcon’s previous efforts in terms of size; however, there seems to have been no compromise on the quality of the latest show. The footfall has proven consistent over the course of the event, leaving exhibitors and visitors satisfied with the show, in spite of its recent change of ownership.
2020’s dates have yet to be confirmed, but personally I can’t wait to see how the next event shapes up in the hands of its new proprietors. Subcon is surely to remain one of the major UK engineering & manufacturing shows and both buyers and suppliers of these services will no doubt continue to enjoy the network opportunities it brings.