The trend to reduce manufacturing in China continues to gather pace. The main causes are rising labour costs and high shipping costs.
The Observer: “Anyone subjected to brash DFS adverts promising double discounts and 0% finance on sofas would think it was impossible for the furniture firm to get its products from anywhere other than low-cost factories in the developing world.
However, the company is one of a number of British businesses, including Golden Wonder, Hornby and Aston Martin, that has stopped shipping products back to the UK and is transporting jobs to these shores instead, making it the biggest sofa manufacturer in Europe.
At a DFS factory on an industrial estate in Derbyshire there are banks of sewing machines, state-of-the-art fabric cutters and gas-powered staple guns.
Harvey Ellis, head of manufacturing at DFS, who oversees the 838 workers on three sites and in two woodmills, explained: “Once we receive an order, it takes just four days to go from an order on our screens to being loaded on to a van. The frames are shipped in from our wood factory six miles away and we will make 3,000 pieces a week. Today we’ll complete 900.”
In three years DFS has toned down its Chinese activities to join the march of the makers, increasing UK production by a quarter. One worker, nail gun at the ready, said he could cover an entire sofa with fabric – sewn by the factory’s seamstresses – in less than 30 minutes.
It is a skill in much demand. The desire for British-made products has become so great that the factory in Alfreton has just increased its workload, adding an extra shift to keep it running 16 hours a day. Along with two more factories in Doncaster and Long Eaton, it means DFS now makes nearly all of its fabric sofas in the UK, accounting for half of all furniture sold by the company. Only the labour-intensive leather products are still made abroad.
DFS chief executive Ian Filby said he wanted to see the business return to its British roots, and that customers now asked why the company did not make more of its UK credentials.
“Customers are astounded to think that a value-for-money player is also a major UK manufacturer,” he said. Then, with a nod to the dark days of the three-day week, he added: “We all know about the bad old seventies, but the historical mindset of ‘all UK manufacturing is shoddy’ has gone full circle and people now see the UK as the sort of place where people work hard and make a decent crust. People believe that quality product is made in the UK and aren’t going to buy British if the product is poor.”
DFS appears to have tapped into a patriotic zeal among the British public. Its market share has risen from 25% to 28% in the last three years and Filby believes that there are also compelling financial reasons for bringing work back to the UK.
“I’d be surprised if there’s not a lot of British manufacturers wanting to be more responsive to shorter lead times. We’re never going to compete with the sweatshops of the Far East as a country, but you can manufacture here as long as you’re adding design or R&D [research and development]. I think the other phenomena which people recognise and is going to continue, is that moving things around the globe is expensive.”
And it is not just DFS that has seen the benefits of shifting work back to the UK. This year Golden Wonder revealed that its Pot Noodle snack will be made in Leeds instead of being shipped 10,000 miles from China, and Aston Martin Rapide S cars are now built in the Midlands, while clothing businesses including Topshop and Marks & Spencer are selling more British-made outfits.
Lee Hopley, chief economist at the EEF manufacturing association, explained that manufacturing in the UK was increasing as costs overseas grew and customers became more demanding.
“I think customers would be surprised by how much is made in the UK,” she said. “There is a lingering perception that it is still made overseas. Manufacturing output is higher now than the 1980s in real terms, although we’re still 11% below our pre-recession peak. There’s been big investment in technology and equipment, while there is also a focus now on innovation to look beyond the product.”
Model railway maker Hornby is another example, shifting its paint production back to the UK from China after there were fears that any quality issues would take several weeks to be resolved. Executive chairman Roger Canham added that making products closer to home helped businesses respond to demand – and check for errors – more easily.
“It takes four weeks for a shipment to arrive from China, which means if you want to check the quality you have to wait until it arrives,” he said. “Now, if I want to check all I need to do is jump in a car and go to the factory.
“There was a huge surge in manufacturing from China in the 1990s, but now that wages are increasing and shipping is more expensive it’s slowed down. We’ve got a new range of Airfix quick- build models which we will manufacture in the UK because it gives us a better chance to respond to demand quickly.”
And with the shift in work back to the UK come much-needed new jobs, at a time when youth unemployment running at around 20%.
Filby said he would create 250 new jobs at DFS this year, having hired 400 new people in the 18 months to January, and revealed that one of the benefits of having UK factories was the loyalty he got from the staff who had worked there for generations.”
- Hornby to repatriate Airfix manufacturing from China and India (guardian.co.uk)