‘Innovation’ is often casually referred to as the solution to growing the UK manufacturing base. But how are today’s successful manufacturers putting innovation into practice?
In late May a group of Yorkshire-based companies met to discuss how innovation makes money.
Attending were: Ardent UK; Allied Textiles; Airedale International; ATB Morley; Ecologix Controls; Gripple; Just Trays Limited; Perry Uniform; Pland Stainless; Ritchey Limited; Stephenson Group Limited; The Cotswold Food Partnership and Trojan Plastics. They were joined by Barclays, business advisors Grant Thornton and law firm Clarion.
What is innovation?
Mark Edmonds, managing director of Gripple, the wire joiners and tensioners manufacturer, spoke at the event. He explained how his company has evolved from producing a single basic product to becoming one of the UK’s most reputable SME manufacturers. Gripple have won IMEchE’s MX award for the UK’s best SME twice and have a hat trick of Queens Awards for International Trade, Sustainability and Innovation.
“Innovation is at the heart of our strategy. Our ethos has been to cascade innovation into everything the business does, from new products and processes through to people development,” said Mr Edmonds.
“One of the ways we keep on our toes and avoid complacency is by targeting 25 per cent of sales from products less than four years old in order to drive ongoing innovation.
“A focus on consistently providing extraordinary customer service is at the core of what we do. This means having significant numbers of staff in direct contact with customers, servicing current needs and also addressing future challenges. Most industrial orders are shipped the same day,” he added.
“Unusually, Gripple is an employee-owned business with a flat structure. An open plan environment promotes the flow of ideas, we encourage our team to be open minded and to look for new ways of solving problems. Our equitable culture includes a ‘no offices (let alone corner offices) or allocated parking spaces’ policy, equal benefits and holidays, no monthly accounts, equal votes.
“New employees must invest five per cent of their first year’s salary to ensure that everyone is an owner and, therefore, takes ownership of the business.”
At a time when European markets are flat, spreading risk internationally has been important to Gripple, which has customers in more than 80 countries and now has factories on five continents. The driver is proximity to market rather than low cost of manufacture.
The company has invested in manufacturing equipment to allow rapid automated production of many different products. Larger orders can often be manufactured and delivered the same day.
From its first, simple product, Gripple has developed new products across sectors, inventing new technologies along the way. Today, its products can be found in iconic buildings on London’s skyline such as the Swiss Re building and The Shard, where Gripple supplied suspension systems for electrical and mechanical services, as well as providing hanging solutions in the Airbus A380 assembly building in Toulouse.
Importantly, solutions often involve disruptive technologies that provide cost advantages. For example, Gripple saves a huge amount of time when applied to suspending pipe and ductwork compared to traditional threaded rod products – a benefit of real value on fast track construction projects with revenue enhanced through earlier completion. More recently, the technology has been developed to provide seismic restraint solutions.
The key is IP
“Our company was originally founded on a unique patented idea, allowing us to invest heavily in our state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment and to continue to invest in both processes and product development.
“Since the original Gripple patent was filed, we have invested millions of pounds in securing further IP rights, which include not only patents, but also trademarks and registered designs. Investment in IP is a key metric in our product development process – if we can’t patent a product, then we don’t pursue it.
Leigh Martin, head of law firm Clarion’s intellectual property practice, stressed the importance of protecting IP: “Having invested substantial amounts in bringing a new product to market, it is essential that businesses recognise and protect the value of their IP both at home and internationally to ensure that it drives maximum value to the business.”
Gripple diversified about six years ago. Its sister company, Loadhog, is also tasked with generating new products in its chosen sector, reusable transit packaging. A third entrepreneurial branch is Incub, an ideas ‘incubator’ set to realise the dreams of budding entrepreneurs and imaginative inventors by fast tracking their product concepts to market through a unique collaborative approach.
“Gripple is just one of many companies in the region that are demonstrating that UK manufacturing is anything but out of date,” Edmonds concluded. “Manufacturing companies are some of the leanest, most innovative and most competitive businesses in the country and have a great deal to teach businesses in other sectors.”
Andy Wood, partner at Grant Thornton in Yorkshire, talked up Yorkshire’s big role in UK manufacturing. “Despite the doom and gloom, we see the resilience of the sector on a daily basis, From world-leading engineering companies to flourishing food producers, the region’s manufacturing industry is alive and well.”
The innovation roundtable event was hosted by Grant Thornton, Clarion and Barclays.