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Companies urged to innovate and diversify in post-COVID world


(L-R) Graham Whitehurst MBE, Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Councillor Peter Johnston, Michael Millar, Business Development Manager at AE Manufacturing Services and Councillor William McCaughey.

Manufacturing and engineering firms across Mid and East Antrim must “innovate and diversify” their offering if they are to survive and thrive in a post-COVID world, according to Graham Whitehurst MBE, chair of Mid and East Antrim’s Manufacturing Task Force.

Formerly the head of Michelin in Northern Ireland as well as being operations director at Wrightbus, Graham has an in-depth understanding of the business landscape and supply chain across the region. In his current role, he aims to help rebuild confidence in the manufacturing sector through the creation and sustenance of jobs in the region.

But it’s his recent work on the ground with some of the area’s SMEs that he has found to be the most rewarding.

“I’ve been fortunate to experience how some of the world’s most successful manufacturing firms operate and how they react in challenging times. No matter what their usual product or service offering, they respond quickly to the needs of their customers,” Mr Whitehurst said.

“Adapting, innovating and diversifying – that’s how they survive. We have seen many excellent examples of this already across the borough during COVID-19 and doing the same in a post-COVID world will be no different,” he continued.

That’s the message Graham took on a recent visit to Ballymena-based multi-disciplined firm AE Manufacturing Services.

Set up by Scottish company AGR Automation Ltd earlier this year, AE Manufacturing Services operates as a social enterprise with a primary focus on large-scale printing onto a variety of materials such as glass, as well laser cutting, metal fabrication and upholstery.


The firm is also a key supplier to bus maker Wrightbus.

During an engagement session with the AE Manufacturing Services team, Mr Whitehurst said:

“It’s important for businesses within the wider supply chain to constantly monitor their environment and look for opportunities or threats that may present themselves. Industries are changing and becoming increasingly focussed on more sustainable, cost effective and greener products, so it’s only right that suppliers look to meet that need.

“Innovation and subsequent product diversification are examples of how local businesses can rise to meet the requirements of industry.”

Michael Millar, Business Development Manager at AE Manufacturing Services, commented:

“Committed to building the business on the three pillars of integrity, innovation and excellence, AE Manufacturing is striving to broaden our customer base. Having gained an insight from Graham on the strategic importance of innovation and diversification, we are excited about the future of the business.

“We are also highly motivated by our efforts to continue helping others through the social enterprise aspect of the business.”

Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Councillor Peter Johnston said:

“Despite the challenges posed by a post-COVID environment, product and service diversification will play an important part in not just the local manufacturing sector’s economic recovery but also that of the wider economy.

“As a council, we remain committed to supporting these firms, which are the lifeblood of our local economy.”