Made in Chard: The Somerset factory keeping it local
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.
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.
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.
"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.