Designed in Britain, made in Britain?

7th June 2011

Designed in Britain, made in Britain?

Chancellor George Osborne concluded his budget announcement earlier this year with the manufacturing-centric mantra: “We want the words ‘Made in Britain,’ ‘Created in Britain,’ Designed in Britain,’ ‘Invented in Britain’ to drive our nation forward. A Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers. That is how we will create jobs and support families.”

It is easy to dismiss this as political hyperbole, but what does it say about our manufacturing economy, and the Government’s understanding of it? In particular, how do we prevent products that are ‘Designed in Britain’ and ‘Invented in Britain’ being made somewhere else?

First, some figures.

The UK is still the sixth largest manufacturing producer, and the activity represents about 12% of our economy. Whilst this is not great, it is not as bad as some people make out, and larger than the 9% represented by financial services. (Figures from Roger Bootle’s 2010 article in the Telegraph – see here). Whilst a large proportion of what is left of our manufacturing base is made up of pharmaceuticals and defence, there are still some companies producing ‘normal’ products in the UK – Some examples include White Knight appliances (tumble dryers); Triumph and Norton motorcycles; and thousands of small producers who make everything from plastic bags to architectural hardware.

It was a recent visit to a shop specialising in locally manufactured hardware in the Black Country that reminded me that UK products – even simple ones like door latches and hinges – can still be made economically, provided that they fit the right market sector.

So how can product designers help create a ‘March of the Makers’? Basically – quality, innovation and differentiation.

The competitive advantage of high quality lies mainly in the design of top end products like audio, furniture and fashion. However, it is also the reason why the blacksmiths who supply the shop mentioned above can compete with mass produced door latches. There is a real opportunity here for industrial designers to work with manufacturing craftsmen to create high quality modern products that generate new market opportunities.

From James Watt to James Dyson, we Brits are famous for our ability to innovate – but the fruits of our ingenuity often end up abroad. We need to focus our product design innovation on markets where we can compete economically. Some of these will be high end design and technology, but others could be well designed commodity items. It is a common assumption that we can’t compete with simple imported products, but that often depends on labour content. If we design simple gadgets that require no assembly, we can compete on cost with anyone.

The main benefit that UK product design offers is the ability to differentiate products through appearance, ease of use and sheer pleasure of ownership. These are the qualities that don’t necessarily make a product more expensive to make, but can justify the increased costs that are inherent in UK manufacture.

One UK business that epitomises all three of these approaches is Numatic International, producers of the famous ‘Henry’ vacuum cleaners. Although they don’t produce design icons in the mould of Apple or Dyson, Numatic produce high quality, innovative and well differentiated products. The company also shows how successful British manufacturing can be in competitive consumer markets, with a workforce of 700 and production of over 4000 products per week.

So George, if you want to encourage your ‘March of the Makers’ maybe you should be talking to Henry!

And if you want to find out more about our product design services, visit our product design page.

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