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July 7, 2013 6:45 pm
“Made in Britain” was by one point the mark of the plague for manufactured goods. Tainted by the likes of British Leyland, the strike-ridden maker of oft-derided vehicles, the tag had by the 1970s become synonymous with poor quality.
But as recent data show signs of recovery in the manufacturing sector, there has been a turnround in the reputation of British goods abroad.
From makers of prosthetic limbs in Hampshire to a Welsh semiconductor producer and an espresso machine factory in Birmingham, high-quality and high-tech niche manufacturers are at the forefront of efforts to boost UK exports.
Activity in manufacturing rose by the highest amount for two years in June, according to a poll of purchasing managers published last week. Order books are also strong.
The economy, however, is still far from the “march of the makers” that George Osborne in 2011 envisaged would lead Britain to recovery; while manufacturing is picking up, the much larger services sector remains as dominant as ever.
Yet, in certain niche markets, UK products are on the rise, with “Made in Britain” a badge of quality that draws the eye of wealthy consumers in emerging markets.
“There is now an awareness of UK-based production that appeals to our customers as a mark of integrity and quality,” says Julie Deane, founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company, whose leather satchels found an international following after they were featured in an advertisement for the Google Chrome internet browser.
Joe Dixon, vice-president of production at Brooks Brothers, an upmarket US clothing chain, said that customers associated British-made textiles – cashmere sweaters from Scotland, for example – with quality and heritage.
“The main selling points are that well made British clothes are the real thing. They come with a rich history and tradition and a confidence [in the quality],” he said.
The UK may never again produce the large volumes of commoditised goods that roll off production lines in lower-cost countries, but the Financial Times has spoken to some of the many smaller success stories that together offer hope of the manufacturing renaissance dreamt of by policy makers.
In Birmingham, they make espresso machines for export to Italy.
Fracino, the UK’s only coffee machine manufacturer, was launched in a garden shed in 1963 by Frank Maxwell after he stripped down an espresso maker bought on a family holiday in Italy and decided to make his own.
The third-generation family-owned business produces about 3,000 coffee machines a year. Almost 30 per cent of Fracino’s annual turnover is generated by exports.
The coffee makers range in price from £500 for machines for home use, to £7,000 for commercial machines destined for cafés, bars and restaurants.
There is now an awareness of UK-based production that appeals to our customers as a mark of integrity and quality
- Julie Deane, founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company
This family-owned maker of prosthetic limbs has been around since the late 19th century.
It develops and manufactures artificial knees, feet and other body parts and also provides specialist rehabilitation services to the NHS and to the Ministry of Defence at its Headley Court unit in Surrey.
Of 650 staff worldwide, 600 are in the UK. Last year, $24m of Blatchford’s £58m reported sales stemmed from the US.
Through its research division, Blatchford develops and makes prosthetic components that incorporate microprocessor controls and high-tech materials in artificial knees, feet, hip and socket components.
It supplies 15,000 feet annually, ranging from the more expensive microprocessor controlled hydraulic feet and ankles, to cheaper alternatives for less active amputees.
For the past half-century, David Nieper in Derbyshire has designed, made and hand-finished a range of lingerie, nightwear and womenswear at its headquarters in the town of Alfreton.
Its targets are well-off women over 40 who, according to the company, look for “natural fabrics, well cut designs and put quality before price”.
The second-generation family business employs 230 staff, has sales offices in four European countries and more than a third of £12m annual earnings come from exports. Its biggest overseas market is France.
The group sells garments directly to private customers via mail order and the internet.
Bowers & Wilkins
At its factory in Worthing, Bowers & Wilkins produces some of the world’s most high-tech and expensive hi-fi speaker systems.
The British group has a 50 per cent global market share in the production of loudspeakers priced at $2,000 or more per pair. The speaker system in a gleaming Maserati Quattroporte saloon car, for example, is likely to have been built on England’s south coast.
The Worthing facility produces about 1,000 pairs of its flagship 800 series speakers a month. They sell for between £3,750 and £18,500.
Founded in 1966, the company has more recently branched out into expensive headphones and iPod speaker docks.
It employs about 320 UK staff and the US and mainland Europe are its two largest markets, contributing 35 and 30 per cent respectively of its £140m in annual sales.
Jaguar Land Rover
Middle classes in emerging markets such as China are growing in wealth and size, driving demand for British-made vehicles from Jaguar Land Rover, the carmaker owned by India’s Tata Motors.
JLR has been a bright spot in the British car industry of late, selling some 350,000 vehicles in 2012, up 30 per cent on 2011.
The popularity of Land Rover models such as the Evoque and Freelander has led to round-the-clock production and significant staff increases at its three plants in the UK in Solihull, Halewood and Gaydon.
The plants employ about 23,000 people – one-third taken on over the past few years – to cater for higher demand. JLR’s £2bn of annual capital spending will rise to £2.75bn this year, in an effort to keep pace with German rivals BMW and Audi.
In an industrial park on the outskirts of Cardiff is a company whose semiconductor chip technology is integral to a number of gadgets and digital devices.
Dispatches from the tech world: FT experts in San Francisco, London and Taipei upload their views
IQE is the world’s biggest supplier by volume of compound epitaxial wafers – these ultra-thin wafers are used in smartphones, solar panels, power converters and optical products.
The Aim-traded company, employing 160 UK staff and run by Drew Nelson, uses robotic machines to apply up to 300 microscopically thin film layers – a technology known as epitaxy – that give the wafers their unique properties.
Each 6-inch wafer can be divided into as many as 1,000 minute compound semiconductor chips, with a dozen or so worth a total of $10 found in each iPhone.
The company has production facilities in the UK, US and Asia, and its wafers produce 3bn chips a year. IQE earns more than 98 per cent of its £90m annual revenues from abroad, with the US contributing 75 per cent of its sales.
A small maker of skin creams calls the west London suburb of Chiswick its home, producing organic beauty products predominantly for export.
Pai Skincare was set up in 2007 by Sarah Brown, pictured right, after she discovered she was allergic to the products she was using. She set out to create a plant-based range for “sensitive” skin.
The company’s products are all made in Chiswick and research and development is also based there. Pai’s products range from £7 lip balms to £46 anti-ageing creams.
About 40 per cent of its revenues are generated in the US, with direct sales via six international websites covering the UK, Europe and Asia.
Smith & Nephew
While the UK’s big pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline draw headlines for their presence in drug development, Britain also excels in the manufacture of certain medical devices.
From its plant in Hull, Smith & Nephew manufactures the specialised dressing for “woundcare” technology that can cut the length of hospital stays and healthcare costs.
Since 2011, the FTSE 100 company has produced Pico, a transportable “negative pressure” device that helps wounds to heal faster and means patients are not required to stay in a hospital.
The pocket-sized suction device keeps the dressing away from the wound and removes fluids, creating an environment that speeds up the healing process.
The company believes that demand for such devices will grow in emerging economies, as westernised diets alter the types of medical problems that will need to be treated.
The device is sold in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and parts of the Middle East and S&N estimates the market to be worth $1.6bn annually.
Smith & Nephew last year generated 92 per cent of its $4.1bn in annual revenues outside the UK.
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