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Talking to the Local Heroes

After decades of decline, British manufacturing has enjoyed a few peaks over the past few years but remains a relatively quiet industry. But it’s worth remembering that many of the companies manufacturing electrical products are resisting the pressure to move production to the Far East. For some it’s a matter of product quality, for others it enables their company to keep lead times to a minimum. Richard Scott looks at three companies manufacturing in the UK to hear their story.

Founded in 1977, Ellis Patents is a designer and manufacturer of specialised electrical cable and pipe fixings for a range of market sectors including, power generation, oil and gas (offshore & onshore), construction and HVAC. Based in Rillington, North Yorkshire, managing director Richard Shaw is proud of their commitment to British manufacturing:

“When the business first came into being in the late 1970s there was no question about overseas manufacturing. The work was done in Britain, full stop. Of course, over the intervening years, many manufacturers have leapt at the opportunity to subcontract their work to overseas outfits and/or open branches in far off climes, but we have always strongly resisted. The reason behind this is straightforward – the negatives of overseas manufacture far outweigh the positives.

In our opinion, which we feel is very well-informed having never been blinkered enough to not research emerging manufacturing markets, the switch to overseas manufacturing can have a negative effect on product quality, vastly increase lead times, leave a company unable to trace the source of its production materials, and have an adverse effect on product innovation.”

For another manufacturer within the cable management industry, the decision to retain manufacturing in Britain was again a straightforward balancing of pros and cons. Marshall Tufflex, was founded in 1942 in north London, moving to Hastings, East Sussex, in the early 1950s. It is still privately owned by the family of the founder, Harold Cirket. The company employs some 320 people across several sites in Hastings. Managing director, Jim Fletcher, explains:

“Yes, there can be competitive advantages to outsourcing production to other countries, where cheaper labour may deliver lower unit cost products, but for Marshall-Tufflex there are a host of issues allied to this that we simply cannot ignore. For us it is both a commercial and ethical stance and the benefits of manufacturing at home currently outweigh any disadvantages.

Environmental impact is a big issue. The majority of our products are sold for use in the UK and manufacturing ‘locally’ reduces the distance they have to travel to site, significantly limiting transportation needs and road miles. Switching production to, for example, the Far East might cut costs but the environmental impact of our activities may be greater.”

What united the three manufacturers EPA spoke to was their belief that manufacturing in the UK enabled them to keep a tighter control on the quality of the products they produced. Even with communication technology developing at a rate of knots, there is little to beat being onsite and close to the action when attempting to maintain standards. Barry Williams, technical director of emergency lighting manufacturer Orbik Electronics who are based in Walsall details the problems that can arise when purchasing cheaper imported products:

“Close inspection of some imported products has revealed the use of inferior plastics, poor quality batteries and lamps which do not comply with current regulation requirements. This situation stems from the fact that there is currently no requirement for emergency lighting products to have any form of third party testing or approval against European product standards. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to identify the actual performance capabilties of an emergency luminaire and all too often this results in the market being flooded with low specification products. As a company we have long argued that this situation should be brought to an end, with the introduction of a minimum quality standard for emergency lighting which requires products to be independently tested. “

And when dealing with a product such as emergency lighting, the implications can be huge as Barry Williams explains:

“We appreciate that the electrical and lighting market remains obsessed by low cost, but this can mean low performance, which in the longer term may not provide the most cost effective solution. These poor quality emergency lighting products may look the same and give the impression that they are Standards compliant, but all too often they tend to be manufactured from lower specification materials and so frequently fail to perform when required. The real issue here is that when these products fail, they could end up costing lives.”

As well as keeping a tight control on quality, having facilities in the UK also allows a manufacturer to produce specialized products to customers in very short timescales. Jim Fletcher of Marshall Tufflex:

“Local production also means we can be highly reactive to customer demands. This is especially important for our Specialised Applications Department, which works closely with customers requiring bespoke cable management solutions and can quickly design and manufacture an order. We could not offer this service if we produced overseas.”

One of the most frequently repeated reason for moving manufacturing overseas is the cost of labour. However for companies such as Ellis Patents, this doesn’t quite stand to reason now that such a large proportion of the manufacturing process is automated. And even when manual work is required, if businesses are clever there are ways and means to make the process work both for the company and the community, as Richard Shaw of Ellis Patents reveals:

“The one product that poses this problem to us is our pipe clip, which is sold in multiples of 100s and requires a nail manually inserting in every single clip. Our way round the potential cost implications of this is that we contract the work out – to families in the town of Rillington where our factory is based. Those participating have small machines in their homes, have product delivered by one of our vans and are paid on a piece rate to insert the nails. This is a process that we have operated for years and proves to be beneficial not just to ourselves, as it helps to ensure these products remain competitive, but also to those involved – many of whom are young mothers who are still able to benefit from a steady income and the benefits of work, without having to leave home and worry about child care issues and expense.”

It will be interesting to see how British manufacturing is faring in another 30 years time. One would hope that as the Far East nations cement their positions as superpowers, the disparity in labour costs will become less distinct and therefore less of a draw for British companies. But either way, manufacturing will still be going in one form or another thanks to companies such as the three EPA has spoken to this month, who have shown that there are still a raft of benefits to be enjoyed by keeping things local.

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