Q&A with Chief Executive of the British Ceramics Confederation

Clay Technology magazine
21 Oct 2016

Dr Laura Cohen MBE CEng FIMMM, Chief Executive of the British Ceramic Confederation discusses the impact of Brexit on ceramics and what is holding back innovation in the industry.

Tell us about your career to date.

I studied a degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, UK, specialising in Metallurgy and Materials Science. I also obtained a PhD in the same department, working on hydrogen embrittlement in duplex stainless steels. I later joined the Research and Technology Department at Imperial Chemical Industries. After that, I spent around 20 years in a variety of technical, engineering and manufacturing roles in the company, ending up at AstraZeneca in a regulatory role. I joined the British Ceramic Confederation (BCC) in September 2008, and am also Chairman of the Energy Intensive Users’ Group in the UK and of our European Association, Cerame-Unie’s Environment Committee.

What’s been your career highlight? 

Most of the highlights have been at BCC. I felt particularly proud when we launched our European Association, Cerame-Unie’s Roadmap to 2050 report. It was a huge honour to chair the work of one of the first associations to achieve this.

I was also delighted when George Osborne listened to some of our messages on the need for a level playing field on UK climate and energy taxes. Some tentative steps were made – exempting our sector from the Climate Change Levy (what was termed ‘the tax break on tea pots’) as this benefitted nearly all of our members and followed what many EU competitors had been doing for some time.

I am proud of the very competent, diverse and professional team we have built up at BCC over the last eight years. I always feel very humbled when a member thanks me for helping save their business or for a piece of work that has made a real difference to long-term business viability – for example, helping tackle a cash flow problem, obtaining support for some innovative technology developments, or, more recently, renewables compensation. 

Is there enough technical innovation in the ceramics industry?

Product developments are the lifeblood of the UK technical ceramics and refractory sector. It is always fascinating to see how our members have anticipated and responded to customer needs and also developed more markets, particularly overseas. There has been some good work with world-class researchers in UK universities but we would like to see more and across a broader range of ceramics businesses, as well as support for more technology transfer into manufacturing. 

Across all ceramic sectors, there is the need for more innovation, in ceramics manufacturing and, in particular, developing more energy efficient/low-carbon processes, while retaining product durability and still remaining internationally competitive. One factor holding innovation back is a lack of certainty around future regulatory costs. Greater certainty of pro-manufacturing policies by Government would help. 

How could this be improved?

We’ve been working closely as an association with academics, such as Professor Julie Yeomans at the University of Surrey, UK, as part of the Ceramics Innovation Network. We organise an annual seminar, with a different theme each year (defects, sustainability and this year, energy efficiency) involving our members, academics and Innovate UK. This helps facilitate networking and innovation. We’ve also been updating members of any public funding and project opportunities and encouraging them to apply for funding and work with Catapults as appropriate. We’d like to see more manufacturers across a broader range of sectors follow through here, and it is encouraging when we see smaller companies benefitting from this process. For example, a few weeks after this year’s innovation event, one smaller company we visited showed us some tests they’d been running on new energy-efficient refractories they were developing with a supplier and an academic they’d met at the event.  

What will the Brexit vote mean for the ceramics industry?

Our members strongly supported remaining in the EU as there were real benefits on trade, energy and climate policies. We will now need to work hard to influence favourable, pro-manufacturing UK policies. We do not underestimate the challenge because a series of UK governments have proposed or enacted policies that have been harmful to our sector, so we need the Government to recognise that they need to work with us and intervene in a positive way.

The previous Coalition and Conservative Governments have focused on cars, aerospace and, more recently, on steel. However, it is important that other sectors’ interests are not neglected, including those of ceramics. We set up an all-party parliamentary ceramics group earlier this year and were already running our EARTH campaign to unlock the UK industry’s full potential, which we have reviewed after the Referendum. 

What action would you like to see the industry take in response?

We have already written to the new Secretaries of State and Ministers outlining our members’ priorities and have shared our thoughts with some key officials. We see the formation of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department as an exciting opportunity and echo the key points made by the Prime Minister in her recent speech in Birmingham, ‘I want to see an energy policy that emphasises the reliability of supply and lower costs for users. A better research and development policy that helps firms to make the right investment decisions. More Treasury-backed project bonds for new infrastructure projects. More house building. A proper industrial strategy to get the whole economy firing.’

We see an opportunity, particularly on energy and climate policy, for the UK Government to develop a more integrated industrial and energy strategy and achieve its aims for emissions reduction by adopting a radical approach that uses more carrot and less stick. We want a strong support of research and investment in energy efficient technology rather than punitive taxation that renders UK manufacturers internationally uncompetitive.

We need people working in the industry to make their voice heard and articulate how important our sector is to the UK economy. If we achieve a sensible regulatory framework, there are some great opportunities to grow ceramics manufacturing in the UK, not least to build the durable, energy efficient, affordable homes that we desperately need.

Do you see the skills gap as an issue that globalisation could improve in the UK?

Businesses are working hard to upskill staff, recognising that manufacturers need to be multi-skilled in the most modern plants – a new brickworks will require multi-skilled, mechanical and electrical and robotics engineers with expertise in gas safety, for example. More highly skilled technical staff are needed and that has been another reason for encouraging companies to build up their links with universities, either to recruit graduates or PhD students to help upskill existing staff. There is also an opportunity that many are taking to bring in a new generation of apprentices with some fantastic schemes. However, the ill thought out Apprenticeship Levy, which has been rushed through, is not helping in the way it could. 

When it is not possible to fill jobs through local recruitment, many of our members have benefitted from recruiting EU staff, some of which are long-serving and are now in senior and technical roles. A smaller number of our members have recruited staff from Asia and some of those have found the work visas a challenge. We are concerned that the flexibility our members currently have will be lost on leaving the EU and, without a good system in place, some companies may struggle to recruit. 

Ceramic EARTH Campaign

In January 2016, the British Ceramic Confederation launched the Ceramic EARTH Campaign. Its aim is to raise the profile of the important contribution the industry makes to the UK economy, and emphasise to policy makers that the industry’s full potential is not being realised because of a combination of policies. The BCC set five policy demands as the part of the campaign, updated after the referendum, which it believes require urgent and decisive ministerial action: 

E – EU Emissions Trading Scheme Emissions Trading Scheme. Whether part of the EU ETS, or as a separate scheme, the government needs to ensure all ceramic sub-sectors receive mitigation measures in full to guard against leakage of carbon, investment and jobs to competitors outside the UK.

A – Action to lighten the cumulative costs of UK energy, climate and environmental policies which harm the sector’s ability to remain internationally competitive.

R – Reduce industrial CO2 emissions by developing a long-term partnership with co-funding assistance for the sector to accelerate the development and implementation of breakthrough technologies. 

T – Trade freely but fairly. Ensure an adequate and comprehensive UK-EU trade settlement obtaining, if possible tariff free access to the EU. New UK free trade agreements must support UK ceramic manufacturers. Develop adequate UK Trade Defence Instruments to protect UK manufacturers against dumped products. Reject unilateral EU and UK recognition of China as a Market Economy until it meets accepted criteria.

H – Housing Achieve higher growth for the UK economy from government housing policy by enabling investment in the supply chain here rather than overseas.