– By Finola Howe, Industry Outreach Manager, IT Sligo


Nationally, manufacturing remains a significant player in our economic development and is an industry which must be supported through a number of avenues. In the NW and the broader border region (including NI), manufacturing is one of the region’s largest employment sector, including both high-tech and more traditional manufacturing activities. Industry plays a considerably greater role in this region’s economy and labour market than nationally.

In the NW alone it employs 13.7% of the region’s workers and accounts for 6.1% of regional enterprises, compared with 11.4% and 5.6% nationally.

Digital transformation will affect future developments in the region’s Industry sector and there is a growing demand for automation, science, engineering and digital skills as they are vital to sustaining and growing the region’s manufacturing sector and economy.

In NI, Manufacturing is the third largest employer and the second largest sector in terms of economic output. It accounts for a larger proportion of the economy in Northern Ireland than in the UK as a whole.

Despite the concentration of manufacturing in the border region, there is a lack of strategic understanding, particularly among SMEs, of the implications of digitalisation and Industry 4.0 on their organisations – Less than one third of companies have a digitalisation strategy.

In addition, as Brexit has come to pass, the difficulties of disrupted supply chains, cross border workforce mobility and increasing customs/tariff complexities have become a reality, solutions to which will require different thinking.

Given this landscape within the border region there is an opportunity to develop a manufacturing industry cluster that can help member companies to collaborate on strategic approaches to these challenges.

The Clustering Journey So Far

Although we have highlighted potentially critical issues that manufacturing companies in the border region would benefit from collaborating and working on together, building the ‘cluster’ is only just beginning! As cluster best practice suggests, we are starting with identifying and mapping the key stakeholders that will be involved, which consist of players from Industry, government agencies and academic institutions.

These players will be the group that ‘ignites the spark’ ; -creating momentum through a shared purpose, defining a way of working together that supersedes local competitive tensions on behalf of solving strategic & systemic problems and adding greater value for the collective.

In this cluster development process, we aim to progress our understanding of the border region manufacturing cluster ecosystem; surfacing the various business models and value chains that are potentially quite complicated and interrelated. By doing this we may uncover sub-clusters and develop work streams and actions that will be more targeted towards the different subsets of manufacturing focus areas. As we map the ecosystem we want to engage companies that are within the ecosystem value chains and connect them into the cluster so that broader collaborative efforts can develop which in turn will increase the value to the collective.

We are looking forward to working with the manufacturing community in the border region and building the cluster collaboration to sustain the development of the manufacturing industry into the future.