The story is familiar. Britain’s hand tool makers, who once dominated the world, are struggling to hold on to a half share of their £1bn home market. Evolution relentlessly takes its toll on all but the strongest of the species and it applies to industrial companies as much as to the animal world.
Now, in a £40,000 research project at Sheffield University, engineers hope to re-tell the story of how industries evolve and die by using classification methods from the world of biology. They are testing the feasibility of using cladistics the study of biological diversity to understand why industries such as the UK hand tools sector use such a diverse range of production systems.
Cladistics comes from the Greek word ‘klade’ meaning branch, and scientists using this technique employ tree-like diagrams called cladograms to trace the evolutionary development of biological forms.
‘What social influences ensured that dinosaurs became extinct, humans survived, but apes do not drive cars?’ they might ask.
The Sheffield researchers under Dr Ian McCarthy believe cladistics can be used to map industrial evolution and are applying it to hand tools and car manufacturing. The aim is to produce a blueprint applicable to all types of industries.
Ever since man made that first axe-head, demand for hand tools has grown steadily. Today it would be hard to imagine life without forks and spades, screwdrivers and spanners, tin openers and tweezers. Yet the UK’s hand tools industry is struggling to survive.
So where better to research the industry’s rise and fall than Sheffield, home of the hand tools industry? The city’s small, second, third and fourth generation family-owned businesses are likely to have kept essential historical records.
The study aims to identify the practices and technologies that differentiate the mass market supplier from the niche manufacturer.
The results, in the form of a cladogram or ‘tree of life’, should enable companies to move through the tree using the signposts to help them identify competitive strategies.
It is a road map that tells the user: ‘If I am here on this branch and I want to be over there, on that branch, these are the characteristics I must should drop and these are the ones I need to acquire.’
Industrial research partner Paul O’Hanlan, a project engineer with hand tool maker Footprint Tools, founded in 1875, says he will be looking for 5 10 year goals. ‘I would like to get information on what our state is, where we are going and where everybody else is going.’
Jerry Frizzel, a research fellow with Cambridge University manufacturing engineering group, was asked by EPSRC, the government funding agency, to advise on the study’s feasibility. Cladistics, he says, provides a scientific basis for detailed industrial classification unlike existing ad hoc descriptions such as ‘jobbing shop’. That phrase tells you little more than a firm is a manufacturing company, he says.
Cladistics, he says, teaches us that the ‘unlearning process’ is equally important. A company making monogrammed cutlery for royalty may use embossed paper and a quill pen for invoices. A move into mass production would need a radically different approach such as the integration of a computer system and the phasing out of the traditional paperwork.
Cladistics suggests that a new shoot on the branch or even a whole new branch might be formed.
To get from one position to the other, it is necessary to go back to the start of the branch or fork. Progress along the new path can only happen when old cultures and methods are more or less abandoned, says Frizzel.
O’Hanlan says the Sheffield study may be too late to save jobs moving to low-cost economies where legislation is relaxed and technologies are more competitive.
But he sees a new role for traditional European and US hand tools companies. They will give their traditional brand values and commercial expertise to the business, but manufacturing itself may well be transferred to the Far East.