Agile, smaller enterprises are leading a revival in the industry

Excessive focus on big manufacturers is a distraction from the sector’s real innovators

The tiny improvement in Britain’s gross domestic product in the final quarter of last year may be raising fears about the strength of |the economy in general, but manufacturing appears to be on a roll. Figures just released by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply show that last month’s growth in the sector was the highest since October 1994. This means that manufacturing production has grown for the last eight consecutive months.

It is a challenge to the familiar picture of large companies moving manufacturing out of the UK or reducing their workforces. So could traditional industry be making a comeback?

For years, the political emphasis has been on service industries, particularly financial services, as the drivers of the economy. Meanwhile, manufacturing’s share of gross domestic product has shrunk to 13 per cent (from more than 20 per cent as recently as 1995) while still accounting for about half of exports and helping to make Britain the world’s sixth largest exporting nation.

There are signs, though, of a change in thinking. Partly prompted by the credit crunch, many are calling for a “rebalancing” of the economy, with manufacturing given greater prominence. Dr David Clark of the ERA Foundation, a think-tank dedicated to encouraging the commercialisation of industrial and academic research and development, says: “The financial crisis of the last 18 months has highlighted the importance of manufacturing to the UK economy.”

Among the smaller companies leading the way are The Versatile Flooring Company in Luton, which had a turnover of £3.8m last year, and British Ceramic Tile, of Devon, with a turnover of £27m. Both have taken advantage of brownfield sites, making significant investments and taking the time, often years, to ensure their manufacturing processes are profitable. Both are making quality products at cost-effective prices. And the common keys to success are balancing automation and people, reducing energy consumption and continuously improving quality.

Finding finance for investment has also been crucial to the ability of each of these companies to develop and achieve the cost reductions and quality improvements vital to successful UK manufacturing. Tom Lawton, the head of manufacturing at the accountants BDO, believes access to finance to invest ahead of growth will be a particularly challenging part of the recovery.

The Versatile Flooring Company is opening a new factory in Luton that will be fully operational this year. It has developed new and advanced techniques to produce its ecotile range of interlocking floor tiles – reducing rejection rates and energy consumption. Two highly specialised injection moulding machines have recently arrived from Demag Hamilton in Germany, a purchase backed by a loan from the Carbon Trust, the Government-supported organisation that helps business to improve energy efficiency. These will enable the company to reduce energy consumption by 30 per cent, which helps to offset the increased labour costs of the UK.

Sales grew by 15 per cent even in 2008-2009, so the company was making enough products to render manufacturing in the UK a viable proposition. Until reaching the point where economies of scale were possible in the UK, ecotiles were manufactured in Belgium and China. “Manufacturing in China was probably one of the most stressful, unsatisfactory experiences of my life,” says James Gedye, owner and chief executive. “There was a very low level of automation. Apart from the injection moulding, everything was done by hand which increased opportunities for errors. The culture was about cutting costs all the time. We would get reject rates of between 25 and 30 per cent of production. In Belgium, the reject rates were 2.5 per cent.”

Founded in 1996, The Versatile Flooring Company started making health and safety flooring in Gedye’s garage, eventually moving to a purpose-built unit in Potters Bar in 2005. “Suregrip [a range of anti-slip safety products] has always been manufactured in the UK. It is a relatively labour-intensive product produced for bespoke solutions with a short lead time, so ideal for UK manufacturing.”

But it is not just about automation. Professor Duncan McFarlane, of the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing, notes that “lights-out” factories have never really made it in the UK, because taking the human beings out of the manufacturing process removes the opportunities for continuous improvement.

Dick Sale, the director of manufacturing at British Ceramic Tile, agrees. “An over-reliance on automation and computers can sometimes lead to a very repetitive large mistake. You need human interaction… At the same time, you have to be automated, be of a size where you can compete internationally on cost, and build on the fact that you need design and flexibility in factory to react very quickly to deliver high-end design ideas.”

Energy efficiency matters hugely, too. British Ceramic Tile is using lean manufacturing principles to remove 25 per cent of energy costs over five years. It recently opened a plant in Devon, two miles away from its main source of clay, the fundamental raw material. The facility – a third of a mile long, a quarter of a mile wide – has been designed to reach 100 per cent recycling targets wherever possible, from the rainwater off the roof to the rejected tiles.

“When we were designing the factory, energy was a concern. We started to monitor the kilocalories per kilometre square of tiles produced,” says Sale. Small, quite practical things, such as double insulation around kilns, have driven down heat and energy use in the factory. “When I have owners of big companies tour the factory, their jaws hit the floor – they cannot believe someone has a fully automated factory in Devon ready to do business. Our aim is to make buyers’ choice as simple as possible and for cost not to get in the way.”

With sterling remaining relatively weak, exports of manufactured goods could continue to grow and so help to achieve that much talked-about rebalancing. As Professor Mike Gregory, of the Institute for Manufacturing, says: “Manufacturing is about turning ideas and opportunities into products and services. What could be more satisfying than that?”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Sport
Lewis Hamtilon and pole-sitter Nico Rosberg
SportShould F1's most aggressive driver curb his instincts in title decider?
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Reach Volunteering: Trustee – PR& Marketing, Social Care, Commercial skills

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Age Concern Slough a...

Reach Volunteering: Charity Treasurer

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Crossroads Care is s...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Soho

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35,000: SThree: We consistently strive to be ...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: Markit EDM (CADIS) Developer

£50000 - £90000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Markit EDM (CA...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin