Friday, 19 September 2014
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Chiswick or China: Brompton bicycles sparks IP debate

The iconic UK folding bike maker Brompton is a curious company.  Though exports account for around 75 per cent of its output, it continues to manufacture all of its  bikes in the UK. And not just any part of the UK, but in leafy Chiswick, spiritual home of the urban SUV and top of the range baby buggy, and just about as far removed from a UK industrial heartland as it’s possible to get.

Following this week’s announcement that the firm had a received a prestigious  Queen’s award for export achievement, its  Managing Director Will Butler-Adams mounted a compelling defence of a manufacturing strategy that appears to fly in face of the currently accepted wisdom

Asked on Radio 4’s Today Programme whether he was planning to follow other entrepreneurial UK success stories and outsource manufacturing to a low-labour cost economy, he confirmed that Brompton is here to stay.  This is not  - he stressed -  because of some quaint attachment to the eccentric idea of manufacturing in the nation’s capital but for the simple reason that if the firm was to outsource manufacturing it would find it very difficult to protect its IP. Armed with the precise knowledge of how to manufacture its bikes, third party engineers in China for instance, would, he said, be free to take their skills to rival businesses. The advantage of manufacturing in Chiswick, he quipped, is that there are no neighbouring manufacturing businesses.

Many companies that have outsourced their manufacturing -  Dyson springs to mind - would disagree vehemently with the notion that it’s impossible to protect your IP if you’re manufacturing overseas, and indeed Dyson polices its brand extremely effectively. But Butler-Adams’ comments might give other manufacturers - who’ve been tripped up by China’s lax patent laws - pause for thought.

Of course, the radio musings of a bicycle manufacturer are unlikely to cause a sea change in the UK manufacturing industry. But there’s also another force at work.

As the middle class of so-called low labour cost economies grows, labour costs rise. And this is exactly what’s currently happening in China. A  reduction of the financial incentives of outsourcing manufacturing, coupled with the inevitable concerns over IP, might indeed point to a future where firms like Brompton are no longer a lone curiosity.

In the meantime - if you fancy a demonstration of British engineering ingenuity at its best, next time you see someone riding one of the iconic folders ask them how quickly they can pack it away. They won’t be able to resist giving you a quick demonstration. I should know. 

Jon Excell

Editor

The Engineer

(Current best folding time: 10.43 seconds)


Readers' comments (33)

  • Isn't it the Americans that have the saying, "what goes around comes around"?
    Money is the manufacturer's god but some of those outsourcing their products in other countries are already finding that the work force are making more financial demands. The Indians are one of the nations who are demanding better salaries than before.
    Well done to Brompton and I hope other companies follow suit and remain in Britain.

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  • I for one are glad Brompton state that they are here to manufacture their bikes in England. The concept of the bike is brilliant (and yes I do own and ride one). As long as they make bikes here then wealth is put back into the local economy without much of it going abroad and local people are employed. Surely we cannot grumble at that!

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  • So you didn't hear the excellent "In Business" programme on Radio 4 the week before that was all about the Brompton Bike Company and its way of doing business?

    While we're talking R4, did anyone else hear the excellent Engineer Joke on Balham Bash last night? Check it out on Listen Again.

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  • The most excellent output of Fuller's Brewery might well be a significant advantage of manufacturing in Chiswick. A nice pint of ESB at lunch time - Ahhh!

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  • Speaking as the Product Manager for Carbolite, the UKs largest manufacturer of laboratory furnaces, as well as furnaces and ovens for industrial applications, based in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District National Park, I can assure you that there are still parts of British manufacturing that are strong healthy and thriving.
    Good products, an innovative approach and good exports built over many years have stood us in good stead, but so also has the UKs own home grown engieering base.

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  • We have a factory in China- It makes our stuff for Asia Pacific that takes too long to ship from here. When it comes to cost, we make it cheaper here in the UK than they do in China anyway.

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  • I would contend that the reason they can survive in London that they are manufacturing a premium priced product in comparatively low volumes. Good marketing! It is a soundly engineered and well designed product which is essential for this model to work.

    Well done and here is to continued future success.

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  • It's not just the cost of labour that is increasing. The cost of transporting goods is also rising. There is also concern about the quality of goods, some of which is appalling. You wait three weeks for a boat full of products to arrive only to find that it's all rubbish. So you re-order and wait another three weeks. Alternatively, you can air freight, by which time, the financial benefits have vanished. The problem for the UK is that we are losing the skills to support a manufacturing boom.

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  • A while ago that Brompton did do some initial feasibility studies in switching production to outside the UK. But the quality of some of the precision engineered components was not good enough for them, or so the article stated.

    I am also glad that they are staying not just in London but in the south east…I worked for a large scale manufacturer in Hemel Hempstead which subsequently ceased to exist. Let’s hope it is a change in the future and that the UK stops ‘hemorrhaging’ jobs in favour of the bottom line. Bring back engineering apprenticeships, decent pay for blue collar workers and start making those coming through education look away for the perceived lure of cash in the City, to the development of skill and a rewarding job in engineering and manufacturing. Let us not forget the revolution which happened in that Coalbrookdale iron foundry in 1709! Maybe a different piece of ‘push iron’ will lead us to another industrial revolution.

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  • This happens only because of 'a premium priced product in comparatively low volumes'. To make UK back to the top of manufacturing/engineering, you just cannot do it in such way.
    Sorry to say.... I do not see anything encouraging from this business.

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