Made In Britain: a look at UK manufacturing

As the startup scene flourishes, it's heartening to see UK manufacturing receive a well-needed boost as well. More and more businesses are choosing to manufacture in the UK, for reasons from quality, control over the process, and a desire to put supporting local industry at the heart of their brand.

Kate Hills is the founder and editor of Make It British, a blog dedicated to championing British manufacturing and providing resources for businesses eager to manufacture in the UK. She's also the founder of trade show Meet the Manufacturer, which connects businesses with manufacturers. With 20 years' experience working for big brands, Kate became disillusioned with the short term vision many of them had about sourcing their products, and became a keen ambassador for British manufacturing. We asked her some questions about why making in the UK is great, how British startups can keep their manufacturing here, and what's next for UK manufacturing.

What preconceptions do startups often have about British manufacturing?

I think the main misconception is that manufacturers are sitting around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for new business. At the moment quite the opposite is true - they are all very busy and so can pick and choose who they take on as new customers. This means that any unknown brand has to work twice as hard to convince a manufacturer that they are a worthwhile prospect to invest time in.

One way of doing this is to only approach a manufacturer once you know exactly what your business plans and have all the details gathered together regarding the product you are asking them to make. Giving vague information and expecting a factory to conjure up a masterpiece based on an idea in your head is not going to win you a lifelong manufacturing partner.

What are the benefits for startups who choose to manufacture in the UK?

The main benefits are shorter lead times and the smaller minimum order quantities. Also, it is much easier to do business with someone that you can meet face to face locally rather than having to communicate via email or take long haul flights to meet them in person.

What are the common pitfalls for businesses looking to manufacture in the UK?

One of the biggest pitfalls is not building in enough to for product development. Yes, lead times are shorter here, but prototyping can take a while and is time-consuming for the factory so is not always top priority. I never cease to be amazed by the amount of designers that contact me and tell me that they are planning to launch in a matter of weeks, yet they haven’t even made a first sample.

The other pitfall is designing something that is never going to be cost-effective to make in the UK, either because it is too labour-intensive or uses processes and techniques that we don’t have the skills or machinery for here. An example of this would be highly embellished clothing that requires a lot of hand-sewing - unless you are planning to retail at couture prices, this sort of product is best left to the Far East.

Do you think there needs to be more done to make it easier for small businesses to manufacture in the UK? What kind of thing?

One of the main issues is being able to find manufacturers here in the UK. That is one of the reasons why I set up the Meet the Manufacturer trade show, which is an event where business can come to find manufacturers to make their products. The show is now in its third year and we have well over 100 manufacturers of clothing, textiles, homewares and leather goods taking part. We plan to also move into other sectors too - the more people that we can help to make in the UK, the better.
On a less positive note, factors such as an increase in minimum wage, fuel costs and exchange rates have a big impact on manufacturing and unless the Government does more to help ease the pressure of this on UK factories, then cost prices are going to continue to be uncompetitive compared to the rest of the world. The German government are much better at supporting their manufacturing industry than ours is, and the UK should take a few pointers from them!

How do buyers see the ‘Made in the UK’ tag – does it give products cachet?

Most definitely, particularly overseas. Many of the UK-made brands that I know export more than they sell to customers at home. The only issue with the Made in the UK tag is that there is a lot of confusion about what is actually made here, and consumers are confused. Many businesses use Union Jacks on their products or words such as ‘fabulously British’ to imply that they are making here when they aren’t.

Do you think there will be a increasing shift back to UK manufacturing in the future?

We are seeing it already, particularly in sectors such as textiles. When I first started Make it British five years ago it was very difficult to find brands that were making here, and now there are hundreds of them contacting me every month. A lot of these are new businesses and start-ups that have seen the value in making here, and I want to do the best that I can to help them achieve that.

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