My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Keys to British manufacturing success


A video of the SPARK event by Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce using extract from my talk as voice-over.

This is what I had to say:

Had you been among the five million visitors to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park you would have been impressed by the vast glass structure that housed the exhibition. More so,  you would have been in little doubt that you belonged to a great manufacturing nation. We had been first off the block in the Industrial Revolution and were still going strong.

For the last three years, I have been exploring the catalogue of the exhibition, at which my great grandfather exhibited. I have sought to trace the origin and destination of many of the exhibitors many of whose names are still familiar. This drew me in to a far more extensive search to discover the history of British manufacturing. As a result of this process, I wrote a book, How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World which was published last year. I am now working on the sequel, Whatever Happened to British manufacturing. I have also  identified some common factors and themes that led to success and failure. This evening I want to focus on the successes to see what they have to teach us moving forward.

So, to the beginning, we may have been a small island but our ships carried our adventurers around the globe. It was from this spirit of adventure that the stuff which kick started our industrial revolution came: cotton. There is much that was bad about the whole business of cotton, but I will stick with the positive, for it has much to teach us.

We are great inventors.

Men and women who spent their days spinning and weaving would dream up better ways of doing what they were doing. It is this dreaming, this process of trial and error that holds so much of the key. Names like Arkwright, Hargreaves and Crompton. Machinery emerged and the mills in which to place it; mills then powered by water.

What if? What if is another key – what if there was an alternative source of power to that of fast flowing water. 

For centuries the British had been using wood or charcoal as a source of energy, but in the sixteenth century the demand of the navy for wood for ships meant that we had to look elsewhere. That canny lot in the north east already knew the answer: sea coal, as opposed to charcoal. In time, mines were dug to get at yet more coal but something was needed to pump out water and foul air. 

Enter the steam engine, first the atmospheric engine by Newcomen and then the engine capable of rotation by Watt.

Here we have some more keys. The steam engine found its way in to the fields of Lincolnshire with firms like Clayton & Stuttleworth with threshing machines. Richard Hornsby of Grantham was convinced that the steam engine could do yet more and soon Hornsby became the world’s number one. I guess Joseph Ruston may have disagreed and I will come back to that. 

Chemicals also offer some vital further keys. The bringing together of much of the British chemical industry into ICI in the twenties could have been a disaster. The premise for the mergers was quickly disproved with the export market for fertiliser collapsing in the face of  local competition. In spite of this, the board of ICI did two things: they continued a commitment to pure research and engaged in propaganda.

The later we would know call marketing. The former is instructive. ICI scientists explored ideas and came up with discoveries for which uses had to be found, as indeed they were in the form of polythene and Perspex. There is the lovely story of an ICI director asking one of his chemists what he was going to invent next? Such was the gap between boards of directors and those who do the work. Nevertheless a commitment to pure research is, I’m certain, a key.

We are great developers.

Here I come to Joseph Ruston who holds a further vital key. It is all very well inventing, but what about developing and selling? There is a lovely story about Ruston going to Russia to sell pumps to drain the fields ready for planting. Whilst there, he heard that oil had been discovered and needed pumping, so off he went and developed his pumps for oil extraction.

Ruston was also acutely aware that big construction projects used mass manual labour; surely there was a way to mechanise. He developed it in the form of the steam powered mechanical digger (the steam navvy) and then sold it to the company seeking to dig the Manchester ship canal. This leads to another lovely story. The project was bedevilled by appalling weather and the diggers sunk deep into the mud. Ruston’s men cleaned them up and soon had them all working again. In Lincoln public library there are two books of meetings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which speak of Lincoln engineers. That of 1885 includes Ruston’s presentation on the steam navvy which was used in the building of the Manchester ship canal.

Our steam railway locomotives were the best in the world: just think of the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard. Was there nothing that steam couldn’t do? Charles Parson’s steam turbine was perhaps the ultimate powering ships and generating electricity.

We were first with steam but not so with internal combustion, although Richard Hornsby may disagree – the story goes that he was producing Akroyd Stuart diesels with a small d eight or so years before Diesel himself. 

In 1908, Hornsby produced a 70 hp. vehicle that ran on chain tracks, and it was demonstrated at the Royal Review showing how well it could cross soft muddy ground; the Prince of Wales was said to have been impressed. Sadly Lincolnshire farmers were not and Hornsby sold his patent to the Holt Company in the USA. This company later adopted the name Caterpillar. The track technology was of course used by William Tritton and Fosters in the tank.

But what of the motor car? The French and Germans were first, because of the red flag, but we did well in the slip stream. Lanchester was the first to conceive a car that was not simply a horseless carriage – he saw through convention to arrive at something new.

The motor car holds other keys to British success. Lucas were forever exploring ways to make the car better. Interestingly they were perfectly happy to take a licence of other people’s inventions and use their skill at manufacturing to make it with greater economy and efficiency. Rolls-Royce were perhaps the perfect combination of engineering excellence and effective marketing. 

Pilkington and Rowntree offer a further key. In the twenties and thirties they looked at their businesses and saw they needed a further skill: that of administration, something to glue the business together. Rowntree, suffering from the success of Cadbury, also embraced both market research and the integration of production and marketing. Interestingly, another food manufacturer, United Biscuits, put their success down to industrial relations or as their biographer put it, human relations.

Our tool makers offer yet another key. Leicester’s Jones & Shipman saw merit in engaging with their major customers in training. British manufacturing had grown largely without an academic core; men learnt on the job. So, formal training entered the field as did academia. Lucas persuaded the University of Birmingham to accept their money to endow a chair of manufacturing. The academics were horrified but slowly were won round. We can boast with great pride our own university and the UTC and their commitment to engineering and manufacturing. 

Three later Lincoln developments offer further keys to success.

The gas turbine. I had the privilege to meet Kelvin Bray of Ruston Gas Turbines who began working with Bob Fielden  under the watchful eye of Frank Whittle developing the jet engine for industrial uses. The use found was to power the exploration and extraction. Bray believed that success would follow and convinced Arnold Weinstock of GEC to back him. The result was that Ruston turbines were used by 80% of the world wide oil industry. Characteristically Kelvin’s parting words to me were ‘ now we’ll need to find a way of fuelling turbines with hydrogen’. Bray’s keys to success were belief and a commitment to continuous improvement. Turbines were never  given numbers to indicate their power, for the power was forever increasing.

The second is Micrometric. This company which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary carries our high precision cutting and welding for a large range of industrial customers, offering consistent excellent quality. It represents one of many thousand excellent British engineering companies which make up the supply chain and are the very heart of British engineering.

The third one is semi-conductors where Lincoln through AEI were definitely among the first. Their key to success is their ability to survive through thick and thin based on a commitment to excellence. They are now of course, Dynex. Interestingly a former finance director of the AEI Lincoln operation told me of a business plan submitted to Weinstock for the mass production of semiconductors. This time Weinstock chose not to support. His rival, Plessey, took a different view but without the financial muscle of GEC. 

This draws me into the keys to lack of success. We were not well served by government nor the city of London, both of whom obsessed with the short term. But as I say, that is another story.

So we are inventors and developers. Of vital importance, we welcomed those from other countries to develop their ideas under our patent laws and with our skilled workforce.

William Siemens and Henry Bessemer developed processes for making steel. Brunel built some of our finest railways and bridges. 

Italians, Marconi and Ferranti gave birth to our electrical industry. It is surely an irony that the Italian Leonardo which now owns much of our defence electronics industry is at pains to trace their ancestry back to none other than Marconi and Ferranti. Later in the story we owe a debt to two further immigrants Michael Sobel father-in-law of Arnold Weinstock and Jules Thorn. More recently still, iconic brands of Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Jaguar are thriving under German and in the case of Jaguar Indian ownership. It would be churlish not to mention our own Siemens, descended from William Siemens brother,  who have invested not only in what was Rustons, but also in Parsons, telecoms, railway train assembly and wind turbines. Siemens Energy are leaders in the path to net zero.

We have much to be proud of not least here in Lincolnshire. Great inventors, ingenious developers and places keen to offer a welcome to those who wish to do business here. But come on government and city financiers, recognise this incredible talent pool and back it. 

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