April 14, 2011
In a world where mass production and economy of scale is king, where bringing a product to market seems to involves scouring a generic parts catalogue and the hard part of design comes down to which logo you’re going to put on it, there are fewer bike companies that design and manufacture from the ground up.
It’s not always been like that – at the birth of mountain biking in Britain and across the world there were plenty of small companies, usually stereotyped as men in sheds with lathes and milling machines. Indeed, most of the time the stereotype was pretty accurate. They were usually staffed by passionate people who could react to niche demands quickly and made products that were excellent just as often as they were awful. Times have changed now – the industry seemingly dominated by the big players, and with manufacturing in decline across the UK you’d have thought it’d be tough times for a company such Hope Technology, who insist on making everything they can in the UK.
The truth is anything but. They’re thriving. They’ve just moved to a new even, bigger, brighter and more modern refurbished mill in Barnoldswick and their capability to produce can only just keep with demand for their products.
They’re always looking for the next market and having seen co-owner Ian Weatherill in full flow it’s easy to understand why. His enthusiasm is infectious, with a genuine and unshakeable belief that him and his colleagues can find gaps in the market, make something that works better than the competition and then keep making them at a price people can afford – and all from a small town in Lancashire that doesn’t even have an A-road going in to it.
Of course, parallels will be drawn with another Northern manufacturing success story over in Halifax, but Hope’s mantra of making or sourcing everything they can within the UK makes the fact their products are priced to compete with the Far Eastern competition even more surprising. When asked if they’d consider moving production elsewhere the reply is puzzlement; “we’ve got just the same machines as them, why would we?”
Listening to the inner workings of Hope you find a mix of enthusiasm for modern technology and production techniques mixed up with good old fashioned business sense and a love of what they do. They’ve got some great tales too – the specialist test machinery picked up for an absolute steal from bankrupt defence contractors, buying second hand CNC machines the same ages as their but with a fraction of the working time on them and many more. The new factory premises were bought at a knock down price when the previous owners, who printed scratch cards for the Daily Mail, went bust – which could have been something to do with the flamboyant decor and lighting they chose to install.
The old, ‘Made in Britain’ image of men in overalls standing by lathes and milling machines, smoking rollies as they stand in a mix of dust and grease is massively out of date. The Hope factory floor is a well organised and spotlessly clean environment where the most up to date and expensive, multi pallet, five axis CNC machines can work on thirty-two separate machining jobs one after the other – moving from making integrated top crowns for downhill forks to machining up brake callipers. And Hope have five of these machines, running day and night.
This is the reason that Hope can stay competitive when at first glance it seems so unlikely. One man looks after five machines and as they run 24 hours a day, the productivity per machine is sky high. The machines are the same as you’d find in a top Taiwainese factory, the floor is temperature controlled so that tolerances can be kept accurate to thousandths of a millimetre and where practical, the latest techniques are used, such as the wire EDM which can cut through hardened steel plate thicker than 200mm to accurately produce the tiny freehub pawls.
It’s the same with their design. Because production is so rapid and idea can go from the virtual world of the CAD suite to a physical prototype incredibly quickly. They don’t need to wait for a pre-production sample to be shipped across the world.
They’ve invested in the latest rapid prototyping technology so that issues with fit can be found and rectified before an aluminium blank goes anywhere near a hardened steel bit, much less a customer’s bike.
It speaks miles about Hope’s attitude that while we were at the factory, their 3D printer was busy making a local A Level student’s final project, in-between printing out the bulb fixtures and surrounds for their Vision range of lights.
Ideas come from everywhere – indeed, some of their most successful bits of kit have come from someone in the factory wanting a one-off made for their own bike and then being surprised by the demand from people that see it out on the trail.
When they decide to make something it seems that they first attempt to do it themselves and if that doesn’t pan out – such as when they bought the machine that made phenolic brake pistons and the production process stunk the factory out – it’s only then that they move to find an external supplier.
Looking round their new premises and seeing the plans for the bike test track it seems like the place was made specifically forthem. It’s entirely modern and far removed from the ‘grim Northern mill’ that the phrase ‘British manufacturing’ seems to conjure.The reception is filled with bikes and bits from their past – a full twenty years now – and their design and sales rooms are just down from the room they’ve set aside for their social club. They’re trying to blur the line between the factory floor and the ‘carpet dwellers’ in the offices upstairs.
It seems that their approach of making what they themselves feel a need for is a recipe for success when traditional manufacturing is in decline all around them. Here’s a rather full photo-tour of their factory….