Do Little Mesters hold the key to reshoring production?

As governments around the world wrestle with the challenge of when and how to ease the global lockdown, Keith Ridgway says the moment must be seized to rebalance the UK economy, to make it much more resilient to life-threatening disruptions from dangerously extended manufacturing supply chains.

It is a weighty challenge, for sure, but one possible response, glimpsed even in the midst of the current crisis, is to create the digital equivalent of an earlier form of industrial home working.

Perfected in Sheffield in the early 19th century, a cluster of ‘Little Mesters’ was drawn together by a complex interdependence of skills and products, turning the heart of the city into what economists today might call an ecosystem or an innovation district.


Little Mesters, the foundation of one of the greatest industries and brands in history. Image: University of Leeds Digital Library

Little Mesters, the foundation of one of the greatest industries and brands in history. Image: University of Leeds Digital Library


The Little Mesters were the cornerstone of a burgeoning cutlery industry, defined by the Cutler’s Company as makers of ‘any metal implement with a cutting edge’, specialising in discrete technologies from forging and grinding to linishing and polishing.

Pieces were made at home, or in workshops congregated around courtyards, with products passed from house to house, Little Mester to Little Mester, each process being completed until the final component was finished and passed for assembly in a factory or warehouse.

By 1824, some 97% of UK cutlery production was centred in Sheffield and the city rapidly became a vibrant hub, acting as a magnet for inward investors, with leading manufacturers harnessing not just water and coal to power their activities but also science and technology as they developed new and more efficient manufacturing processes.

Industry-led innovation over the next century – Bessemer, Hadfield and Brearley to name a few – sparked an economic and social revolution that would eventually lead to the demise of the Little Mesters themselves.

This article first appeared in the June issue of The Manufacturer . Get your copy here

This demise was accelerated by low-cost competition from emerging industries in the US and a failure to appreciate the value of new technology to remain competitive, mirroring the current situation with the Far East and China. At the time this was cited as ‘entrepreneurial failure’.

Today, the Little Mesters are viewed as little more than a footnote in industrial history. But are they?

Digital components

The Covid-19 lockdown has compelled people to work from home, just as the Little Mesters did more than a century ago. This time, we are connected not by physical proximity, but by a digital infrastructure that enables immediate communication and the sharing of knowledge and expertise.

Much of the preparatory work for the VentilatorChallengeUK, for instance, was carried out remotely through the use of factory layout optimisation, modelling and augmented reality.

Training and access to remote expertise were delivered through digital knowledge networks and platforms, facilitating social distancing and safe working.

As the lockdown eases, and perhaps for much longer, huge numbers will continue to work from home, either to minimise the risk of infection or simply because digitally-enabled connectivity makes them more flexible and agile.


Every home should have one: remote working with a 3D printer. Image: Shutterstock

Every home should have one: remote working with a 3D printer. Image: Shutterstock


These 21st century Little Mesters will work in specialist disciplines such as factory optimisation; procurement; engineering and product design, solid modelling, analysis, process modelling, production planning and machine programming.

We will pass components and services through these specialist areas in digital rather than physical form.

Eventually the product may be manufactured in a factory environment. But for highly customised, low volume products, the modern Little Mester may be operating a 3D printing machine or assembling finished products in a small workshop.

The Little Mesters will be reborn as artisans with a laptop, their noses to a screen instead of a grindstone.

Challenges and opportunities

Working from home will free much-needed additional space for the safe distancing of those who have to be on the shop floor to carry out their roles.

Working from home will reduce overheads, unproductive commuting and simultaneously reduce our carbon footprint. It creates a natural climate in which virtual skunkworks can be formed, connecting not just the best brains and talents in the region but from around the globe.

In the space of a few weeks, we are quickly becoming accustomed to team meetings using Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.


Businesswoman making video call to business partner using laptop, looking at screen with virtual web chat, contacting client by conference, talking on webcam, online consultation, hr concept, close up - shutterstock_699442555

How quickly we have all grown accustomed to remote working. Image: Shutterstock


We will need to address issues such as transferring large amounts of data, remote access to powerful computers and software, and cyber security, but here the lessons from Silicon Valley and firms such as the distributed computing company WANdisco, headquartered in Sheffield, will be of great value as we move towards a different way of working.

Covid-19 has increased the integration of the digital and manufacturing industries and it should eventually accelerate the Made Smarter industrial digitalisation programme.

The programme promised a £445bn boost to the UK economy when it was launched two years ago, bringing digital and tech companies together with manufacturers to create new ecosystems of Little Mesters, where smaller innovative tech companies come to understand that the transformation of UK manufacturing is a huge market opportunity for them.

Turning data into knowledge to radically improve productivity on the shop floor, giving production managers visibility of what is happening on each machine and with each operative, is the only way we can now compete as a nation against countries such as China to whom we have foolishly ceded so much of our manufacturing base.

These digitally-savvy Little Mesters will also help weave digital threads through the length of global supply chains, bringing greater resilience to our economy by providing early warning signals of disruptions and the ability to flex to other suppliers.

This new ecosystem will provide additional flexibility by enabling companies to increase or decrease the number of staff working in different areas.

The Little Mester would be equally flexible working with a number of companies on different products or working across an entire supply chain on different components.

This, coupled with the digital thread running through the full product lifecycle, will give us the resilient supply chain that has been missing in our Covid-19 response.

Once we become familiar with the concept of working from home, different business models will surely evolve. The lasting legacy of this pandemic could be a seismic change in the way we work, forcing us to revisit our vision of the factory of the future by looking to the past.


Keith Ridgway is co-founder of the AMRC with Boeing and the Nuclear AMRC. He is executive chairman of AFRC University of Strathclyde and the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland.