M&I visited Brompton's factory in Brentford on a beautiful spring afternoon a couple of weeks ago. We were shown around by a welcoming Swedish lady and given a great insight into the working process behind the classic folding bicycles it produces.
During our turn around the factory we met Alan, an engaging gentleman who is in charge of goods and quality control. Over the course of ten minutes, Alan showed us various testing methods and told us about his love for Brompton's designs. Below is the transcription of our chat.
"We take various measurements - how far it moves sideways, length, roll... all sorts. It takes half an hour or more on this. And on this (new machine, pictured above) it takes 4-5 minutes. All the measurements get logged by the computer. We aim to do one in fifty (tests) on each part. We’re after a very accurate measurement. On an ordinary bike, if your alignment is 2-5mm, it’s not too bad. What a big bike business will do is bend it to put it in shape. We can’t do that. We work to 0.2mm, hopefully 0.1mm. If it’s not aligned you’ll end up crabbing down the road!"
"Quality is the issue. We have such a good crew here, everyone is about quality. Take our tubes, plenty of companies use them and it won’t matter if they’re marked a little. However, we have exacting standards - if our customer is sat on their £700 plus bike the last thing they want to see is an imperfection. We have to maintain quality at all times.
Terry, who runs this section is quality assurance (manager). Between the two of us we keep the quality of the raw materials, before paint. If a material is damaged then we will send it back. They might polish it down and this can cause us problems as it gets weaker. So we’ll test it to make sure, using weights and shifting across in 50mm, then 20mm, plotting the results on a graph. It gives the tensile strength."
"We have people in Taiwan, France, Spain doing stuff (making parts for Brompton.) There’s an awful lot of parts that are absolutely ours alone, to our specification. Which is why, with our patents we fight very hard if we find there is an infringement."
On Innovation, Design and the Dangers of Complacency
"We have some young blood, as it were, with great ideas. The biggest problem in any industry is that you get complacent with what you’ve got. These people have come in over the last couple of years and said ‘why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?’ and the real question is ’why didn’t we think of that?!’ That’s the way it goes. In any industry, if you sit back and get complacent you might as well give your stuff to your competitors, you’ve got to keep on top all of the time."
A Work of Art and a Pleasure to Work With
"Ten years I’ve been here and I still think they’re a work of art. A great deal of that goes down to the initial quality of the work that Andrew started with when he started the business. A lot of the equipment started out with lumps of hardboard, a few screws and nails and it has all developed into this and is still expanding.
Before here I worked at a chemical firm in West Drayton. The basis there was ‘if it’s dirty, smelly and sticky we make it’. In our mixing shop where I used to work, if you stood still you’d stick to the floor. A visitor would come in and think we all needed to go to the loo as we’d be hopping foot-to-foot so we didn’t stick! Three times a year we’d get a snow plough to scrape the floor clean down to the concrete. So coming here is a pleasure!"
Annotated photos of the visit are on the M&I Facebook page