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Ian Menzies, senior programme director, General Dynamics UK

Graham Pitcher finds out how a new network will give Welsh electronics companies even more of a voice.

Wales was one of the UK's first beneficiaries from the wave of inward investments during the 1970s. But the glory days didn't last very long, investors moved away and the principality's electronics industry has a much different shape today.

In fact, the Welsh electronics industry – defined as 'any company that designs and/or manufactures products with high electronic or software content' – features some 550 organisations. Around half of Welsh electronics activity can be found in the Cardiff and Newport areas, but significant clusters can also be seen in Bridgend, Swansea and Wrexham. These are complemented by an optoelectronics cluster around St Asaph and a software cluster in Bangor.

In an attempt to provide a broader voice to the electronics industry in Wales, the Welsh Electronics Forum (WEF) has set up ESTnet – the electronics, software and technology network – as a specialist membership network. The aim is to help its members build trusted contacts, maximise their connections and open up their market places by facilitating networks and exploiting the depth of our sectoral knowledge and contacts.

Heading ESTnet is Ian Menzies, senior programme director at General Dynamics UK. "One of the things we need to provide is more of a voice to Welsh industry. The way to do that is to form a collaborative environment."

But where the WEF was only concerned with electronics and closely related companies, ESTnet has a wider interest. "Our horizons have broadened deliberately," Menzies said. "More and more, we found that it was not just pure electronics companies that we were representing."

ESTnet will be the public face of the Welsh Electronics Forum. Menzies noted: "With this change of emphasis, we will be making sure that we are creating much more of a community and that the community is the voice of Welsh industry."

The creation of ESTnet is timely, said Menzies, bearing in mind the recent establishment by the Welsh Assembly of a selection of sector panels. Launched in July 2010 as part of a plan to ensure the Assembly Government provides the best conditions to support the private sector and the economy of Wales, the six sector panels – including ICT, and Advanced materials and manufacturing – will be made up of business people with an established reputation in their field, whose job it will be to provide advice to Ministers on the opportunities and needs of the different sectors.

"We will be making sure we inform these panels as we go forward," Menzies said. "This network that we have formed will help their thinking."

How important will ESTnet be to Welsh electronics? Menzies said: "From where we see things at the moment, it's tough going. But what we can see are the seeds of recovery. The challenge for us is how companies in Wales – particularly SMEs and micro companies – can get hold of the right skills and the right marketing collateral. Companies need more skills to adapt to the changing climate and they can't just bring them in because they can't afford to do that. ESTnet is looking to help them share skills, rather than leaving them on their own. We want to help them to build relationships – ESTnet will be rather like a dating agency."

Skills remains a critical issue for Welsh electronics. "We're working closely with SEMTA [the sector skills council] and, in the last quarter, have undertaken the largest skills survey yet done in Wales," Menzies noted. "The results will inform our thinking on how we can optimise our skills levels through our recently launched HR Forum. We're looking at how we can shape graduate schemes in order to provide skills that companies are struggling to find; not only engineering, but also business skills."

But Menzies knows skills are only one facet to be addressed. "Equally important is making sure we can exploit emerging technologies; plastic electronics, for example."

While the WEF knows a lot about the electronics industry in Wales, it can never know enough, said Menzies, so ESTnet will be looking to get a better understanding of the industry's demographics. "SMEs and micro companies are adding value in a number of industries and customers are looking to work with those kinds of company. A lot of government agencies struggle to put both sides together. There is innovation which can be accessed and value added; we're trying to ensure it's available. We're looking to help these companies get products to market and to help them access those markets."
Menzies realises that ESTnet will not be able to do everything. "We want to work with other bodies," he asserted. "If we can make connections, we will. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel."

The Welsh Assembly is seen by Menzies as a positive force. "Having this local focus is good. The Secretary of State for Wales is keen for us to keep this momentum and is making sure that the Welsh Assembly is there to support us."

Where will ESTnet be in a year's time? "We have some key performance indicators," Menzies admitted. "But what would be good is that we have made connections, people have formed business relationships and work has come in. Meanwhile, we will have started to feed into the appropriate sector panels and that's good, because we have a role to play in their forward thinking. In the end, however, we'll be judged by our success. We want to connect like minded people and give them strategic insight. A problem shared is a problem halved," he concluded.

Ian Menzies is senior programme director for General Dynamics UK. A Chartered Engineer with more than 25 years technical and business leadership, he is responsible for the £2.5billion UK Army Bowman military communication and information system, which involves more than 400 technical and professional staff, along with a significant set of industrial partners.

Menzies championed the EDGE UK Innovation Centre in South Wales, which assists SMEs in developing their product capabilities and routes to market. He has also led industrial/academic collaborative research and technology projects.

Graham Pitcher

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