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'Modest' recovery forecast despite dip in orders levels

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: July 02, 2013

  • Axminster Carpets fell into administration with the loss of 300 jobs in March. Right: At the St Austell base of plastic processing company Polymermedics. From left: Managing director Ulrich Tebbe, David Yallop (operations director), Mateo Klemmayer (chief executive officer) and John Colling (finance and HR director)

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National industry surveys have reflected how the manufacturing outlook fluctuated in last 12 months since.

But, while figures indicate that the South West as a whole is lagging behind much of the rest of the UK in terms of export, when it comes to positivity and growth forecasts, in recent months, the region has been ahead of the game.

In April, manufacturers' organisation EEF reported that Westcountry manufacturers are forecasting a "modest" recovery in 2013 – despite a dip in order levels.

The Manufacturing Advisory Service's May barometer also reflected that the region's small and medium sized manufacturers are "faring well" in comparison to the national sector outlook.

More than half of 130 respondents reported an increase in turnover compared to six months ago, while 50% said order books had increased within the same period.

One of the headline setbacks for the region's manufacturing occurred in March, when Axminster Carpets fell into administration with the loss of 300 jobs and the closure of a Buckfast yarn-spinning plant.

A consortium of investors led by Pittards and former Swallowfield chairman Stephen Boyd mounted a rescue buyout in April, under the trading name Axminster Carpets (2013) Ltd. The move saved an initial 103 jobs, with recruitment for up to 28 further roles later announced.

It began work on a new range of products, planning on increasing export levels on the strength of its brand and exceeded its first month's performance targets by 22%.

In November, the remaining 72 workers downed tools for the last time at Leaderflush Shapland's Seven Brethren factory in Barnstaple. And In Bideford, 250 jobs will be hit, with TE Connectivity announcing plans in January to close its North Devon factory and relocate overseas.

In January, specialist textiles manufacturer Heathcote Fabrics announced it was to close its Barnstaple factory with the loss of up to 35 jobs, relocating operations to its Tiverton plant, where it employs 460 staff.

Heathcote has invested £500,000 in new technology at Tiverton and, in October 2011, the facility won contracts valued at £2 million to manufacture parachute fabrics for suppliers within the UK and French military markets.

Corrugated cardboard manufacturer Atlas Packaging is expanding in Barnstaple, with the 98-strong company focused on generating a £20 million turnover within five years.

One of the UK's largest privately-owned corrugated packaging producers, Rigid Containers announced plans to establish a £6 million Wellington manufacturing base, creating more than 40 jobs.

Leather goods manufacturer Pittards has announced a dramatic annual profits slump in March, describing the results as "disappointing". It is looking ahead to launch a range of aviation leathers which will be made at its Yeovil factory. Its pre-tax profits for the year to December 31, 2012, stood at £300,000, compared to £2.8 million in 2011.

In St Austell, plastic processing company Polymermedics upgraded its manufacturing base with a £1.2 million refurbishment. The firm, which employs 60 staff, produces plastic seals for the medical and pharmaceutical industry.

In renewables sector, Dunkeswell-based Supacat is working with Fred Olsen Ltd in the development of the latter's BOLT Lifesaver, a wave-energy converter which is the first installation to be commissioned at FabTest off the Falmouth coast, where it is undergoing sea testing.

Supacat is also developing a multi-purpose support boat, designed to reduce the number of different vessel types required to undertake operations on offshore facilities.

Earlier this year, Falmouth-based Mojo Maritime secured £3 million in Technology Strategy Board funding to develop its HiFlo-4, an industry-specified vessel being engineered as a solution for the deployment of tidal energy devices.

Shipbuilder A & P Falmouth and Appledore-based marine contractor Keynvor MorLift are part of a consortium which has been awarded £1.5 million research fund, also from the Technology Strategy Board, to develop a sea-going vessel to help make the deployment of green energy installations easier and more cost-effective.

"The region has a massive advantage in terms of marine renewables," said Phil Brownsord, South West regional director of manufacturers organisation EEF.

In March, Torrington-based Beran Instruments secured £300,000 in Government research funding to evolve a monitoring system that will enhance the performance of nuclear power plants. Beran anticipates creating a "significant" number of new jobs within its 85-strong workforce over the next five years.

Glass manufacturer Dartington Crystal, which has increased its workforce from 225 to 250, said new export leads are boosting its business.

In February, the manufacturer's marketing and design director Richard Halliday said that opening orders of £40,000 for its products in China, were just the start of its route into the Far East. He said: "We could be putting an extra "0" on that, in time."

Dartington owned and manufactured Royal Brierley Crystal is one of four Devon firms that hold a warrant to supply its wares to the royal household and will be exhibiting at a Coronation Festival showcase at Buckingham Palace, this month. Colyton-based wheelwrights Mike Rowland and Son, Paignton's Suttons seeds and Exmouth-based Wilsons Paints, will also be there.

Seeking to establish a name for themselves as new-generation manufacturers of quality, British-made goods are two young entrepreneurs.

James Chapman, based at Week St Mary in North Cornwall, has been designing and manufacturing precision-built farm machinery since 2010.

Aimed at a customer base seeking equipment that is built to last, he has designed and built products including a menage grader, flail mower and paddock topper. His business increased its turnover by more than 300% in 2012 and is set to increase by 200% by December.

Earlier this year, teenager Max Birtles, from Bovey Tracey, launched a men's fashion brand, inspired by the electronic music scene.

He believes that the quality of his brand, Dream But Do Not Sleep clothing, will be key to its success, with the garments made locally, by an Exeter manufacturer.

With T-shirts starting at £15, the range is priced on a par with high street brands mass-produced in the Far East.

Meanwhile, fashion brand Mulberry has begun construction work on the Bridgwater site it acquired in 2012, to build a new factory where 300 jobs will be created.

In March, Wellington-based Swallowfield confirmed that a "very small percentage" of jobs were axed as part of cost-cutting measures after announcing £800,000 in pre-tax losses. The cosmetics and toiletries manufacturer, which also has a Bideford factory, had been impacted by a loss of orders from two key clients.

It was announced that half of the UK's new search-and-rescue helicopters will be built in the Westcountry. Yeovil-based AgustaWestland has bagged a contract worth around £230 million to build 11 AW189 helicopters.

With the aerospace sector considered recession-proof, one thing to emerge from the regional supply chain is a pressing need for the skills base to support it.

"You only have to look at the recruitment pages to see they are desperate for engineers," said Phil Brownsord, South West regional director of manufacturers organisation EEF.

During the year, healthy meals manufacturer Pasta King, based in Newton Abbot, secured £8.7 million in senior debt and working capital to support expansion plans which include a launch into retail with two new brands.

In December, 49 jobs were saved at Inject Plastics Ltd, when the Plymouth-based factory which had relocated from Totnes, encountered cash-flow problems.

Renamed Magma Moulding Ltd, it was bought by Bristol-based Magmatic Ltd, the firm behind the Trunki children's ride-on suitcase. Magmatic reshored manufacturing operations to the UK in 2012.

Phil Brownsord said that in the latter half of 2012, the region appeared to lag behind national trends in terms of outlook: "It's unusual, because it usually always tracks ahead," he said.

In terms of the skills base needed to make up the shortfall in the engineering sector and to support burgeoning areas of industry – including marine renewables – Mr Brownsord says it was time to forward-plan.

"Rather than just thinking; in three years I'll need the staff, now the orders are coming in we can start looking ahead to recruiting the people with the skills that will be needed," he said. "Part of that is getting people here to come here to study."

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