How does a world-leading manufacturer keep production in the UK?

Globally celebrated plumbing systems company, John Guest, operates in a market that champions strategic outsourcing. Yet the firm’s products are 100% manufactured here in the UK.

Alongside innovation, a pro-active approach towards investing in technology is also playing a significant role – image courtesy of John Guest.
Alongside innovation, a pro-active approach towards investing in technology is also playing a significant role – image courtesy of John Guest.

There is a problem with the word ‘manufacturing’, says the firm’s director of international sales & marketing, James Guest –  grandson of founder, John Guest.

He explained to The Manufacturer that if you regard what the business produces as merely components, then of course, those components can be made anywhere in the world. However, what John Guest produces is technology.

James commented: “We are an innovation company and the most important thing for us is building a differentiating factor into each of our products, be that high reliability or advantages in terms of speed and ease of use.

“If you only compete on price alone, then you’re in trouble because there is only one way down. We’ve never decided to do that; we’ve always gone for a market leadership position. If you have clear points of differentiation and strive to adopt the required leadership approach, you can absolutely manufacture here in the UK.

“However, if you have a singular, quite binary attitude of wanting to make things as cheaply as possible, then you are going to struggle.”

It’s not just pride that drives the family-owned John Guest to maintain its UK manufacturing base, there are also other significant advantages, added James.

He said: “We attend many overseas exhibitions and there still exists a certain prestigious element to being a UK manufacturer, which I don’t think many people realise.

“In terms of engineering, I think there is this real feeling that we are very good at innovation. We like coming up with new ideas and technologies, a new step in terms of the product category. As a nation, we have a strong, global pedigree in that regard. Basing yourself in the UK also provides you with access to a skilled, high-quality, engineering labour resource.”

As an expanding business, it’s understandable that automation is taking on an increasing amount of the company’s production processes – image courtesy of John Guest.
As an expanding business, it’s understandable that automation is taking on an increasing amount of the company’s production processes – image courtesy of John Guest.

Alongside innovation, a pro-active approach towards investing in automation and technology is also playing a significant role in John Guest retaining production in the UK. With output now measured in the millions, it’s unsurprising to learn that the manufacturer has increasingly turned to automation to help meet growing demand.

The firm’s director of manufacturing, Peter Short, noted: “Growing at the rate we are, it’s very difficult to react to and cope with demand without investing in automation, particularly for our high-volume, standardised components.”

The company is keen to automate more of its operations, however, the challenge, as Short sees it, is that many of the automation ‘quick wins’ have already been realised. To that end, John Guest is now exploring what benefits collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – might bring, alongside whether parts can be grouped together for partial automation, with human workers only undertaking the final stages of assembly.