With so many British firms turning to low cost manufacturers in China, Taiwan and India to produce their goods, consumers could be forgiven for thinking that manufacturing in the UK is all but dead.
But after manufacturing in China nearly broke the company, one UK firm has defied convention by bringing production back home to the UK – and making a success of it.
Last year luxury goods producer Patrona nearly went bust thanks to a Chinese production fiasco. The firm which makes the Shirt Shuttle – a plastic travel case designed to keep folded shirts from creasing – had to write-off £250,000 worth of stock from its Chinese factory after discovering it was faulty.
With all of the stock having been pre-sold to major UK retailers, the incident could have been disastrous for the company, founded only three years ago.
“I used to work in Mayfair as a chartered surveyor and cycle to work,” founder Andrew Brundan told Yahoo Finance UK. “I realised it was a nightmare getting my shirt to work uncreased, so I put together a prototype of the Shirt Shuttle.”
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Andrew raised funds from a venture capital firm and sold his flat to pay for the stock, launching the product in the Conran Shop in 2011. He successfully sold 23,000 units in the first six months. After getting backing from Sir Terence Conran, Andrew then set up the manufacturing base for the product in China. But all was not well.
“It very quickly became apparently that there was a problem,” said Andrew. “We started getting products returned. The factory hadn’t used the right material and the plastic broke.”
Fortunately, Andrew was able to convince his investors to lend the company £60,000 to keep Patrona afloat. He took the dramatic step of bringing production back to the UK.
“We managed to set up a production line in Hampshire retrofitting the products for sale,” he said. The company then set up a pop-up shop in White City ahead of Christmas 2012 to sell the products and try to claw back some of the lost money.
“It was a serious situation to be in and a steep learning curve,” he recalled. “I decided I’d never make another product in China.”
These days, all of Patrona’s products, including a new luxury magnetic phone wallet which launched this month – a diamond-encrusted version is selling in Harrods for £5,000 - are produced in the UK.
In January this year, the firm designed a new range of products and sourced four factories in the UK to manufacture them, as well as setting up its own assembly plant in Watford.
Its leather products are now made in Yeovil, while the steel components are made in Cambridgeshire and the adhesives work carried out in Preston.
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Rather than costing it more money, the firm says swapping low-cost Chinese production for cutting-edge British manufacturing techniques has helped improved quality, cut waste by 20%, taken six months out of its pre-production phase and yet still kept prices competitive with China.
“Everyone [manufacturing in China] accepts 10% is going to be bad stock,” said Andrew. “At the Chinese factory [when you give them the production spec] they view it as guidelines rather than a contractual obligation.”
“[Now] We’ve got so much more control. Whenever we have a problem, we just drive down the A6 and we’re in front of people. Plus, usually by the time we’ve got there they’ve solved the problem. They’re fun to work with and they’re honest.”
He urges other entrepreneurs thinking about manufacturing a product to think carefully about how it's made and to consider making it in the UK. “It’s not just about designing a product – it’s about getting it made,” he said.
“You should design it with fewer components involved. Contact the UK factories at the first stage. You can get that advice for free. Don’t think that it can’t be made in the UK – it can. It might cost you 50% more in start-up costs but you’ll soon save that (in the lack of product wastage).”