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.
(Current best folding time: 10.43 seconds)