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Made in Chard: The Somerset factory keeping it local

Dave Harvey | 14:59 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Laser cutting at Numatic, Chard

 

If there were three words that send a chill down most British manufacturing people, it's surely these.

"Made in China".

So when I heard that a Somerset firm had decided to bring some of its production back from the Far East, my ears pricked up.

The Henry production line at Numatic, Chard

Numatic are famous for one product, Henry the Vacuum Cleaner. (Don't say the other H word, whatever you do.)

There are other famous makers of domestic cleaning equipment in the west country of course, but they have long since moved their manufacturing to Asia. Britain, they argue, is where you do 'Design' and 'Research'.


 

 


When I phoned Andrew Smith, the manufacturing manager at Numatic, and asked him how much they make at their Chard factory, he laughed.
"Oh we're not just a screwdriver plant," he explained, "we make pretty much everything here."

 

The metal tubes are bent to shape. The big round drums that form Henry's body are moulded here. Even the little knob that winds the power cable back in is made from scratch in Chard.

The machines are undoubtedly cool. If you like machines, check out this video.

 

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But why, I ask Andrew, do Numatic still make everything here?

"We don't only make Henry," he smiles. Their customers are large cleaning companies, based in Europe, America, the world. They don't want off-the-shelf kit. They want specialised equipment for specific cleaning contracts. Machines that sweep, wash and dry floors in one go for vast hotels and malls. Vacuums that suck hazardous industrial dust safely away. And everything with the cleaning firm's logo printed above the smile.

"We do over 5,000 different product lines," Andrew smiles, "and you can have any one of them in three weeks. We couldn't do that from the far east."

So that's their trick. Fast turnaround bespoke equipment. Yes, Henry is made in volume and shipped daily to the big stores, but every other cleaner is made to order.

A few parts are still bought in from other suppliers, notably the motors which come from an American firm, made to Numatic specifications. But recently Numatic has decided to bring six small parts back to Somerset from the current supplier in the far east. "We've been having problems with deliverytimes," he explains, "and really we can make it here just as cost effectively."

There are other surprising things here too. All the guys on the assembly line are on the same pay and grade. Their shifts vary from sticking Henry together, to feeding and checking the big plastic moulding machines, to running the robots that stick his happy smiling face on. They even do their own publicity in house, with a proper photographic studio next to the main production sheds.

When we had a sandwich, I wondered if someone in Building 5 had baked the bread.

And why Henry? Who thought up the smile?

Typically, it was almost an accident.

Andrew Smith, Manufacturing Manager at Numatic Interntional, Chard

 

"We were at a trade show in Lisbon," recalls Andrew. "To be honest, things were a bit slow. One of the designers who was there doodled a smile on the red vacuum cleaner on the stall. That evening, the public came through - and the smiling cleaner was mobbed."

Back in Chard, they were just developing a new vacuum cleaner at the time. People seemed to like the funny smile, so they drew a proper one up ( in house, naturally).

When they took that to a big trade show in Scotland, it was a massive hit. And so the smiling cleaner's friend was born.

A tour of Numatic should be compulsory for all those pub bores who insist 'everything is made in China'. Not every firm can follow suit, they have established a reputation for speed and bespoke manufacturing with which Asia cannot compete. But there are others. Printers making fast turnaround books for the topical market, for example ( think X Factor Winner, Royal Wedding).

And tomorrow, I visit a firm that actually exports to Malaysia.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Well done Numatic, even though Henry is in his twenties he's still a very vacuum cleaner(it's vac not hoover, by the way!).

    We used to manufacture the best hi-fi in the world as well, but the chinese have been hoovering (sorry!) up Quad,Audiolab, Castle and many others.

    Numatic are a lesson to those who think of profits over quality, James Dyson is a classic example, his Malaysian built machines are rubbish, the plastic is brittle, parts are badly machined.

  • Comment number 2.

    We have one of these and they're a treat. We got it when we saw the state of the foreign Dysons and wanted to support UK jobs. Never regreted it - support our workers!

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm glad you're reporting on this stuff.

    The fact is any firm that fears 'Made in China' is way behind the game. The only thing we have to fear from China is price. But to get that price and make it worth the many long trips, the risk of intellectual property abuse and the lack of hands on control of your production you have to be manufacturing in volume. Even then, where China tends to do volume with many people we can look at doing volume with technology.

    It's not right to assume things are always more expensive to make in the UK. And the printing industry is a very good place to go next. I heard we have more printers per head in this country than in any other country in the world. True or not I know that the printers in this country that have survived have invested heavily in the latest equipment and have retained the skills to compete.

    Would be great to read about more examples.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why are they all called Henry?

  • Comment number 5.

    I wish, I would have known this fact when I bought vacuum cleaner recently. Is there any website which will tell people like me which products are home made in UK? I would not mind shelling some extra pounds to support my home industry. I wish, all those who beat their chests over Britishness think ten times before buying NOT made in UK products. Well done. At last spring of manufacturing is at sight. If Govt. supports all of these companies, past glory could be restored in coming years. Bring it on made in UK and golden days.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is a great report, we need to celebrate companies that commit to the UK in this way. Educating consumers about the impact their purchases has on their own jobs /communities and informing them about UK made product available is key, I recently looked at a Henry vacuum in a store - there is nothing on the box that clearly says Made in the UK. The Numatic website is the same - there is no clear indication of which products are made here. I'll reconsider now. Companies could help themselves here but the govenment should make it a legal requirement for all products to be clearly labelled with their country of origin. Far too often this is left off now and things simply say 'Distributed in the UK by retailer X' (this is usually a disguise for made in China).

 

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