Home grown talent
Richard Shaw, managing director of Ellis Patents, talks about the reasons for the company’s continued commitment to British manufacturing.
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.
Unlike its competitors, the company, which is best known for its market leading cable cleats and saddles, manufactures all of its products in the UK – and what’s more, they even utilise the local population in Rillington, North Yorkshire, in a manner many would consider had been consigned to the history books.
Made in Britain
When the business first came into being in the late 1970s Britain was a very different from the place it is today, and one of the key differentiators was the manufacturing sector. Back then British manufacturing was king. There was simply no question about taking manufacturing overseas – the work was done in Britain, full stop.
Fast forward three decades and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a British manufacturer committed to Britain. Instead, the vast majority have leapt at the opportunity to subcontract their work to overseas outfits and/or open branches in far off climes – all with the aim of cutting costs and increasing profits.
This move, although replicated across a plethora of different manufacturing sectors, is one that we have always strongly resisted. The reason for this stance is very straightforward. We hold a strong belief that the negatives of overseas manufacture far outweigh the positives.
And for those who would suggest this is simply a narrow-minded, jingoistic belief, let me assure you that when it comes to overseas manufacture we have always looked at it from an un-blinkered point of view. At the end of the day, we are a business and therefore anything that is good for the business has to be treated as a possible option.
As a result we feel we hold a very wellinformed opinion of overseas manufacturing and the emerging markets, and our overriding impression is that such a switch can have a negative effect on product quality and innovation; significantly increase lead times; and leave a company unable to trace the source of its production materials.
By maintaining our manufacturing base in the UK, we retain absolute control and it’s this control that really does benefit the end user.
React to demand
One area that really stands out is our ability to react quickly to new demands and changing trends. For example, our plumbing products division recently designed, developed and produced a prototype of a new product (the nesting nail clip) for a customer within the space of just one week. While the electrical side of the business has only just completed a project that saw an entire range of fireproof cable cleats (the Phoenix range) for use with FP cables designed after one of our key distributors, ETS Cable Components, requested them for installation in a prestigious residential development in central London.
These two examples are only the tip of an iceberg of product innovation that stretches back many years and has helped underpin our reputation across key market sectors. The majority of this, and therefore a great deal of our success, simply wouldn’t have been possible if we’d had to contend with the long lead times of an overseas manufacturing facility.
Product quality, or at least confidence in the quality of your product, is another area that we feel can be adversely affected. From our point of view, we can pretty much guarantee the quality of every product we manufacture on the basis that we know absolutely everything about it and the process that has gone into making it.
For example, all the raw material, whether it be aluminium, stainless steel or polymer, is sourced from companies we know and trust, while the majority of our manufacturing is done in-house. In addition, we manufacture and test all of our products to the requisite British, European or International standards. What this means is that we have absolute control and are on-hand to resolve any issues, from problems with product strength through to design flaws, meaning the likelihood of faulty products being produced is exceptionally low.
Another positive bi-product of this is that it helps in our relationships with our distributors, and therefore the wholesalers, specifiers and installers they deal with, on the basis that our reputation is known and trusted.
A green solution
When it comes to green issues, the UK column gets another big tick. Not only is the carbon footprint massively reduced due to the short length of the supply chain, but all processes and sites need to meet the strict European legislation regarding emissions and the environment. In contrast, the environmental impact of manufacturing that is not subjected to such rules and regulations was dramatically highlighted during 2008 by the issues regarding atmospheric pollution that, quite literally, left a cloud over the Beijing Olympics.
One other pro-British argument is of particular pertinence to cable cleats. By and large they tend to be one of the very last products ordered during an electrical installation because contractors need to be sure that they will fit the cable supplied and the dimensional tolerance on cable diameter can be relatively large. Therefore, a cleat manufacturer needs to have the capability to turn orders around quickly – either through good manufacturing lead times or having a large enough stock of products available. In the first instance, overseas manufacturing means increased, and therefore uncompetitive, lead times, while stocking sufficient amounts of varied products for a wide enough range of eventualities is simply impractical.
The price factor
There are, of course, a range of arguments for overseas manufacturing and perhaps the key one is price. Labour is far cheaper, meaning products can be manufactured more cheaply. This though is something we’re acutely aware of and have responded to through several different methods over the years.
Firstly, many manufacturing processes are now automated and as such labour costs aren’t anywhere near as significant as they used to be. That said, there are certain products that are still labour intensive and in these situations the British manufacturer needs to be innovative in order to compete.
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 many 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.
As you can tell we are committed to remaining a wholly British manufacturer and truly believe the pros far outweigh the cons. Yes, labour may well be cheaper in the Far East and other emerging markets, but with so many other aspects of the process stacking up in favour of the UK, why would we even consider the move?
For those who still doubt our approach and continue to push on the supposed cost benefits, I have one simple question – does cheaper always mean better?