Tuesday, 29 November 2011


Following the recent launch of the government's Make it in Great Britain campaign, I had the opportunity to ask manufacturing minister Mark Prisk a few questions about the initiative and UK manufacturing in general:

M&I: Is the future of UK manufacturing based on premium products?

MP: People look to Britain and see the expertise and quality of the goods we produce, from Rolls-Royce aircraft engines to Sunseeker yachts. However it should also be said that there is huge diversity in manufacturing, with both premium and standard products proving successful.

Manufacturing contributes £140bn pa to UK economy. We make everything from biscuits and stairlifts, to ejector seats and off-road vehicles, so we really want to celebrate that diversity and show off our successes. Only by doing that will we inspire young people to be our inventors, engineers and technicians of the future.

M&I: Do you think the definition of manufacturing needs to be reconsidered?

MP: I don't think it's about re-defining manufacturing, it’s more about highlighting what modern manufacturing is all about. We have some world leading British manufacturers, from the aerospace and marine sectors through to food and drink manufacturing, but we need to highlight these successes. That is the role of the Make it in Great Britain campaign; and for that matter the Queen Elizabeth Engineering Prize, which the Prime Minister announced last week, and our See Inside Manufacturing initiative - they all have a vital part to play in our long term plan for British manufacturing.

M&I: Recently there have been a couple of 'Made in the UK' logos launched. Do you see a need for an official badge for items made here?

MP: I don't see it as Government's role to tell people what logos they should use on their products.

What I want to do is help people in the UK to take a fresh look at manufacturing and to appreciate the scale and excellence of our industry. My focus is to overturn the myth that 'we don't make anything any more' and to champion the exciting reality of British manufacturing today.

Image of Rolls-Royce factory workers from Design Talks

Sunday, 27 November 2011


Manufacturing debate in Leeds: more support from government needed (Yorkshire Evening Post)

Dyson invests £1.4m in manufacturing by launching professorship at Cambridge (Business Review Europe)

Inside the Vanners tie factory: video above (Make it British)

A piece that escaped my attention last week on the future of UK manufacturing (Channel 4)

Thursday, 24 November 2011


As well as plotting the visits so far I have added links on the right hand side to point you in the right direction for factory photos. Improvements will continue to be made. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Monday, 21 November 2011


Items of note on manufacturing in the UK and related subjects from the last week:

The newly unveiled McLaren production centre looks pretty swish (Design Boom)

Inside Pashley: Britain's oldest bicycle maker (Humans Invent)

"The design and making of things is terribly important, especially at this moment in time." Sir Terence Conran on Front Row (BBC R4)

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


I was invited to the launch of a government campaign to support British manufacturing today. Make it in Great Britain aims to 'change the image of manufacturing' according to Vince Cable, business secretary.

As a consequence of this image change, it is hoped that Make it in Great Britain will encourage young people to consider careers in manufacturing. The centre piece of the campaign will be an exhibition at the Science Museum, taking place from the 24th July to the 9th September 2012, to coincide with the Olympics.

"The modern reality (of manufacturing) is much more exciting than people believe and the feedback from our existing See Inside Manufacturing initiative bears that out. I want that reality to inspire our young people to be our inventors, engineers and technicians of the future," said manufacturing minister Mark Prisk.

The deputy director of the Science Museum, Heather Mayfield, talked about the importance of making the exhibition appealing to children. "We wouldn't hold this exhibition if it wasn't going to be hands-on," she said.

Monday, 14 November 2011


Several weeks ago, I visited Vitsœ in north London (along with David, good friend turned M&I photographer for the day). When I learned about the company making nearly all of its components in the UK I was surprised, presumably because of the Scandinavian sounding name. The story of how it ended up being produced in Britain is an interesting one.

Vitsœ’s key product is the 606 Universal Shelving System, designed by Dieter Rams in 1960 (hence the ‘60’ of ‘606’ - the ‘6’ is the design number).

Shortly after graduating university, Mark Adams became associated with Vitsœ and in 1986 established Vitsœ UK to became the sole importer and distributor of Vitsœ products in the United Kingdom. Under Adams’ leadership, Vitsœ UK quickly became the largest retail account for Vitsœ.

We arrived at the factory, situated off of a Camden side road and were greeted by Anne, an outgoing Scot who would be our host for an excellent day. Also joining us was Keith, who has worked at Vitsœ for nine years and is, as you might expect, thoroughly knowledgeable on every facet of the product.

Starting our tour in the meeting room, which is also an archive containing masses of drawings by Dieter Rams and some of his designs for Braun, we were given an overview of the history of the product. “In the 60s Dieter’s ‘buy less, buy better’ ethos was almost counter culture. Anti-obsolescence rather than sustainability was the message,” Anne told us. It’s fascinating to think of the power of that stance in an era where consumerism was just starting to blossom.

At its north London base Vitsœ assembles the orders, with parts coming from all over the country. A very small amount of the components come from outside the UK, a key one being the drawer runners, from a supplier in Austria. “Else 95% is made in the UK,” says Anne.

There is one supplier that Vitsœ deals with on a regular basis and has high regard for.

“They make lots of the internal components for the 606. The only reason we found them was that Mark was driving one day and he spotted a van that said ‘Quality machine turned components’; he thought that sounded good and got in touch,” Keith tells us as we move onto the factory floor.

It is this constant desire to improve which strikes you as you learn more about the company. Incremental changes appear to be being made on an unbelievably regular basis considering that the product Vitsœ produces is essentially the same as the one created over 50 years ago by Rams. However, as Keith explains the minutiae of these improvements you find yourself understanding how such miniscule changes come to be, and how they reflect the culture of the company.

“The changes we make are often tiny, and sometimes they will cost us more money but it results in a better product,” Keith says, before adding, “These shelves used to be stamped out. When you ran your finger under the bottom of it you could feel it. We spent years trying to get our suppliers to use laser cutting, eventually they did. When we showed Dieter he had the biggest grin on his face.” You get the sense that this means as much to the team working on the product as it does to the designer himself. This quest for perfection does not remain in-house, however.

“We listen to the customers. If they make a suggestion we will take it on board. One very famous one, who I can’t name, suggested we change the shape of the shelving pins. Flat ended, the pins that hold the shelves in place feel flush with the E-track (the upright posts that hold the shelves). He suggested however that the pin could be rounded for ease of use. We made 10,000 of them but then we decided it wasn’t right so we changed it back,” says Keith.

Listening to customer’s feedback doesn’t stop with product improvements – we also hear about customers who have obtained their 606 elsewhere, who then contact Vitsoe UK and have their calls for help answered by being provided with the parts to repair their units. Remarkable.

It comes as little surprise that most of the staff we meet have been with the company for many years. Many of them are RCA graduates, spanning at least four decades by my reckoning. According to Keith, Ian, one of the cabinetmakers, ‘came with the furniture’ when the company moved from Angel to its current location nearly six years ago.

When it came to implementing a new computer system Ian was instrumental in its design. “The way the cabinet makers used to do it was printed assembly lists would come to the workshop and it would be marked with a highlighter,” Keith explained.

“Ian used to have a big folder. A new order would go at the front. There was a piece of card saying ‘in progress’ and when he was building it he’d move it to the next section and when he’d built he’d mark it as complete.”

“When we told him he was getting a computer for the first time in his life there was a look of horror. So we told him ‘no, we’re going to base it around how you work, rather than tell you how to work. You’ll be even more in control’. It’s entirely based on his system: incoming, in progress and completed - all based on his cardboard tabs.”

Every aspect of the production seems to be considered to a level beyond anything I have witnessed previously. As we continue our walk around the factory (Radio 4 favoured by the cabinet makers upstairs, Mount Kimbie by the team downstairs on the day of our visit) we hear about how Vitsœ created bespoke timber boxes to ensure damage free transportation for its parts. “Some companies we work with often find this surprising as there’s not many companies that pay for the packaging to transport parts coming from other factories. But we’ve saved about 15 years worth of cardboard by doing so,” Keith tells us.

We hear how saving packaging is considered across the company - from how the installation teams return all cardboard to the factory after a day’s work to how Bill (one of the more senior members of the team) designed a bespoke tape holder to ensure that the exact amount of tape needed to wrap around a tube was dispensed. Fastidious stuff.

A final tale from Keith sums up why Vitsœ has managed to build such a strong business in the UK. “Around seven years ago we created these cardboard folders for sending out with instructions for fitting. We’d had them for about a week. A German guy who had bought the system from Germany and now lived in Cornwall calls up. He’d removed his shelving from a brick wall and was now putting it up on a plaster wall. He was concerned and called us to ask our advice. We sent him the fixings and instruction manual for free in the new folder. Within a week of him receiving it his wife had placed a new order for more shelving. He made a comment about the quote which reads ‘Our happiest customers are the ones who have dealt with us the longest.’”

For the full set of photos, please see the M&I Facebook page

With thanks to Anne and Keith at Vitsœ

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Another bumper week of articles on UK making:

An informative round-up on some of the companies making musical equipment in the UK. Including a handful of great quotes on why making in the UK is beneficial (Musical Instrument Professional)

Rolls-Royce: from the Trent engine to turbines; how the Midlands based engine manufacturer's success represents hope for the UK economy (Guardian)

Wirral based lighting manufacturer UKLED moves some production back to UK, citing power of 'Made in Britain' tag (The Manufacturer)

A thought provoking piece on craftsmanship (Drake's Diary)

Image of Trent Engine from here

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Plenty of news this week concerning making in the UK:

An interview with Deborah Meaden of Fox Brothers (Make it British)

Bentley receives government grant to increase research and development (egmCartech)

An interview with Mark Adams, owner of Vitsoe (The Telegraph)

Photo of Bentley factory from Influx

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Portraits of some of the brewers at the London Brewers Alliance 2011.

From top: Stuart Lascelles of East London Brewing Company, Andy Moffat of Redemption, Unknown (sorry, if you know this gentleman's name please leave a comment below), Des de Moor (a man who knows his beer) and Steve Gray of London Brewing Co.

A few observations:
  • Brewing in London is in rude health. Since 2007 the number of breweries has increased threefold - from 7 to 21 (by the end of this year.)
  • A big reason for this growth is that the brewers are a genuine community - nearly all have learned from someone else en route to opening their own brewery.
  • The crowd was pleasingly diverse - from Camra gents to groups of girls in their 20s.
  • The London Brewers Alliance is such a good showcase that it should be held biannually.
You can expect to see more on some of the guys above on M&I in the future; at least three brewery visits were merrily agreed to.

Thanks to Julian Ellerby for the photos (far better than last year's) and the company.