New technologies help recreate UK shoe manufacturing industry

Robert Perkins, CEO at Hotter, explains how the Lancashire-based shoe manufacturer managed to attract young people by creating a more technology driven work environment.

“All our robots have to be programmed using data”, Robert Perkins said.

The British footwear industry has launched a new nationally accredited apprenticeship, which has been designed by employers to be flexible, and it offers high-quality entry-level training and experience to those interested in joining a highly skilled industry.

The new scheme aims to better grasp the economic opportunities which future UK shoe manufacturing industries offer to the country.

Robert Perkins, British Footwear Association board member and CEO at Hotter, told The Manufacturer: “The new apprenticeship is a great opportunity to train a new generation of shoemakers to help recreate a UK shoemaking industry.”

UK shoe manufacturing: Steady decline since the 70’s

The footwear manufacturing sector in the UK has been declining since the 1970s, Perkins said, and well over 95% of the shoes sold in the UK are imported. The skills base has been eroded due to this long-term offshoring process.”

The surviving UK factory base, Perkins explained, is mostly small volume, high end traditional men’s formal shoes, made in Northamptonshire, which cost over £200 and are exported around the world.

There are around 15 decent sized factories that remain in the UK, all of which have become very good at what they do to survive, Perkins said.  Many of these factories have long serving skilled staff, who will almost certainly retire in the next 10 to 15 years.

The few exceptions are New Balance, which make their running shoes in Cumbria, Gina Shoes, a London-based manufacturer of high end bejewelled shoes, Northamptonshire-based manufacturer Dr Martens and the Lancashire-based company Hotter.

These four rather progressive brands, Perkins explained, have invested in advanced facilities, modern machinery and team-based manufacturing, and their factories attract younger staff and they typically have a much better age balance amongst staff.

Hotter & a new generation of manufacturing technologies

“At Hotter”, Perkins explained, “we have invested heavily to create the UKs biggest and most efficient shoe factory, that make 35% of all the shoes still made in the UK.”

“There are around 15 decent sized factories that remain in the UK, all of which have become very good at what they do.”

“A lot of shoe factories are very labour intensive, but in our factory, you see mainly the use of robotics and automated production lines.

“Where processes would have been done individually, they have been blended together, with the use of semi- and fully automated robotics. This means, our labour costs are relatively low, but our capital investment is much higher than in an average shoe business.”

The labour cost pressure has been on the business for quite a long time, Perkins said, and since the 1980s the company has progressively rolled out a programme of investment in machines on the shop floor, with the recent purchase of Hotter’s latest robot a couple of months ago.

Data on Hotter’s shop floor

Hotter not only invests in robots but also in data analytic systems.

“All our robots have to be programmed using data. The way we keep our costs low is to engineer our products in a way that is probably untypical for shoe making generally.”

Hotter takes an engineering approach to the way it designs and manufactures shoes. It uses data to control the manufacturing processes, tracks work in the factory and analyses stock quantities of products in its stores.

“Having clear transparency of where our product inventory is in the business, enables us to offer a great customer service.”

Agility, data and new ways of customising products 

With the help of data and automated manufacturing processes, Hotter is also in a good position to customise its products.

“We do special editions. For instance, when Megan Markle and Prince Harry announced their engagement, we quickly designed and manufactured a range of shoes for the royal wedding.

“Most footwear manufacturers would not have been able to do that because their lead times would have been too long. Because we are much more agile, than the average shoe business, as soon as the wedding was announced, we spotted the chance to offer our customers the opportunity to have Royal Wedding themed shoes.”

Hotter has always been manufacturing in the UK; the company buys in about 10 % of the shoes it sells from a long-term partner factory in Vietnam. “That is because we want to offer a variety of shoe constructions in our range and our factory is not equipped to make all types of shoe.”

Hotter has a £100m a year turnover; the firm is based in Lancashire, employs 600 people on site in Skelmersdale. The company currently has got 80 stores across the UK.