When it comes to technology at least, manufacturing is returning to the UK
A gadget that isn’t made in China is pretty rare these days. But British companies are taking the fight to the Far East by once again building things in their own back yard.
Tech companies cite better quality, lower overheads and quicker turnaround times as the main reasons for making products in Britain.
They say it’s a myth that manufacturing costs less abroad.
Demand for British-made goods is also being driven by the Chinese themselves – new figures from the Office for National Statistics show Britain’s trade deficit has narrowed thanks largely to exports to the country.
‘When you make something in the UK it’s almost seen as doing the country a favour,’ says entrepreneur Dan Ashman. ‘We find it actually plays to our advantage.’
Ashman is the 27-year-old co-founder of Cardiff-based Conka Design, whose gadget accessories have featured on TV shows Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice.
Kenneth Grange’s Kenwood food mixer from 1966
Conka makes everything at its Exeter factory, uses British suppliers and, in just under three years, already exports to 52 countries and plans to move into advanced consumer technology.
‘When someone designs a product in Britain, the trend is to send it to the Far East to be manufactured. Nothing else is really considered and the argument is it’s always down to cost,’ says Ashman. ‘We decided to challenge this and felt we could do it here without compromising.’
The difference is marginal, Ashman says. ‘The price increase of a Royal Mail stamp is more damaging to our business than whether we manufacture here or the Far East. When you put a cost on import duty, freight, and the time delay in shipping, you can do it all in Britain for near enough the same amount.
‘We can turn products around in a matter of days if we’re reacting to a new smartphone being released, for example. The quality is so much better because it’s British standard. The Chinese are able to manufacture a product that’s so sub-standard they have to undercut themselves, because we do it so well.’
Ruark’s DAB radio
Alan O’Rourke, 54, is managing director of audio equipment maker Ruark.
The British business, which is family-owned, designs and develops everything here, but ships out the manufacturing to China – something that O’Rouke is hoping to change.
‘We still do all our quality control inspections back here but it’s the long lead times that cause problems,’ says O’Rouke.
‘Even with the benefits of Skype, it’s a long, long way away. In the next couple of years, we’re hoping to bring the whole process back home.’
O’Rourke believes Britain is still a world leader in tech design.
‘We’re completely up there,’ he says. ‘We’re still fantastic at coming up with unique ideas and developing them. The Chinese can’t design for toffee and neither can the Japanese really. They are very good at taking a basic idea and refining it to the point where it becomes boring. Lexus cars are a case in point there. You don’t drive a Lexus, do you?’
Conka’s Spider camera
Design and innovation from post-war Britain to today is being celebrated in an exhibition at the VA Museum in London. Among the exhibitors is Sir James Dyson, who moved manufacturing to Malaysia ten years ago, something he doesn’t plan to backtrack on.
‘Components, including the humble three-pin plug, are largely made abroad, so it makes sense to assemble the machines nearby,’ the 65-year-old says.
‘Rather than final assembly, Britain’s expertise lies in the research, design and development of new technologies. Dyson has 700 engineers and scientists in Wiltshire, working on a pipeline of technology which is 20 years long.’
Sir James Dyson on design
Sir James Dyson
What sets Britain apart in design and innovation?
Victorian pioneers were bold in their ambition and developed technology to match. But we can’t rely on their ideas forever; we need some large-scale thinking of our own. Grand engineering projects are inspiring and show engineering as the exciting career it is. We need more modern examples to inspire young engineers.
Britain punches above its weight in these fields, why is that?
World-beating technology requires a world-class education. British universities have traditionally been at the forefront of scientific research but our schools have been influential, too. Britain was the first country to have compulsory design and technology lessons. Unfortunately the subject’s future looks uncertain as it is threatened with losing its status on the national curriculum.
For you, what is the most iconic tech design in post-war Britain?
The Harrier jump jet was literally a leap in aeronautical engineering. It did away with the need for a runway and spawned high-performing technologies – an army of engineers at Rolls-Royce developed the incredibly powerful Pegasus engine.
Tell me about the James Dyson Awards.
The design brief is simple: solve a problem. The award raises awareness to help young people turn their ideas into commercial realities. The 2009 winners, Yusuf Muhammad and Paul Thomas, invested their prize money in testing and prototyping their invention – Automist – a fire extinguisher that fits directly on to a kitchen tap.
What advice would you give to young designers?
I am not one to give advice. There is no doubt starting a business in a recession is hard. Dyson was started in a recession but tough economic conditions should make you more driven to develop something new.
British Design 1948-2012: Innovation In The Modern Age is open until August 12 at the VA.