The Expert Zone on AluK’s stand at FIT proved a really popular draw for visitors – with many taking advantage of the free seminars on offer covering topics as varied as making the jump into aluminium and meeting the demands of Approved Document Q.
One of the main highlights was a State of the Market debate held on the opening day chaired by the FIT Show’s Paul Godwin. Windows Active’s John Cowie joined the expert panel, alongside Craig Miller of AluK fabricator AluFold Direct, Allan Wilén, Economics Director at Glenigan, and Justin Ratcliffe, Chief Executive of the CAB (Council for Aluminium in Building).
Representing a broad range of interests and with very different perspectives, the four’s comments on issues from the marketing of aluminium to addressing the skills gap made for a very interesting 45 minutes. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it was the topic of Brexit and its impact on the industry which dominated much of the discussion.
At the start, Paul Godwin wanted to know how many on the panel and in the 30 or so strong audience had voted Leave and, in line with the rest of the UK, the proportion was just about 50%. Craig Miller probably spoke for many fabricators when he said that there was as yet no sign of the Armageddon which many politicians had predicted and that in fact AluFold’s 43% growth this year had even surpassed the 41% in 2016.
Justin Ratcliffe backed this view, revealing that the CAB’s latest quarterly confidence survey showed an 86% net balance in terms of the number of members expecting continuing growth, even in the face of the Brexit vote.
And Allan Wilén pointed out that, while many large scale projects had been paused in the immediate aftermath of what for the banking sector was an unexpected result, the vast majority are now coming back on stream. In fact, for companies operating in the commercial sector, he said Brexit is actually opening up some interesting new opportunities. This includes the hotel and leisure sector, where the fall in the pound is driving something of a tourism boom, and in the logistics sector where there is now growing demand for industrial and warehousing space.
There was obviously concern from all of the panellists about a worsening of the skills shortage post Brexit and it was up to Craig Miller to lead the way in arguing that the only real solution is for fabricators like him to invest in their own training programmes targeting experienced older workers as well as school leavers. Again, Justin Ratcliffe supported this view, noting that, with 41% growth in the number of installers offering aluminium over the past 5 years, there is a greater need than ever for training of these installers.
The election was also covered, with Allan Wilén arguing that it may serve to effectively reset the political timetable, pushing back the deadline to settle the deficit and allowing for more investment in schools, housing and infrastructure which is likely to have a positive effect on the industry.
Addressing the retail market, John Cowie congratulated AluK and the rest of the aluminium sector on its success in generating real pull through from aspirational consumers. Many of these he said are using the permitted development rules to improve rather than move, and have been seduced by the appeal of sliding and bi-fold doors and vast expanses of glass in their homes.
He has seen an explosion in the number of aluminium companies advertising in Windows Active over the last couple of years, which in turn has led to a surge in the number of installers dual sourcing both materials and suppliers and adding aluminium products to their portfolios. This, John added, had been helped massively by the ability of aluminium suppliers to cut lead times and introduce more flexibility on things like colours and configurations.
All of the panellists acknowledged the huge potential which still exists for aluminium in the UK and, in the Q&A with the audience which followed, there was real enthusiasm for the material and an underlying confidence that the industry was capable of withstanding the current price pressures and retaining sustainable margins.
For AluK, the State of the Market debate was the perfect platform for a hugely successful show and the perfect illustration of its support for the industry via its Experts in Aluminium.