Above: Furniture manufacturing combines traditional skills and increasing levels of automation (Credit: Steinhoff UK Manufacturing)
The UK furniture sector went through traumas in the late 20th and early part of this century but it has recovered strongly. It is now larger than many realise and operates within a diverse marketplace.
The British Furniture Confederation (BFC) says that, despite this, furniture and bed manufacturing suffers from lack of recognition at a political level. It has no traditional regional hub and, as much state support is now targeted on a regional basis, it is considered that the industry does not secure the support and influence from government that is appropriate for its size.
New trade era
Beyond Brexit and the potential need to reduce reliance on one of its traditional markets, UK companies find themselves with a Government which has committed to increasing the UK’s exports to £1 trillion by 2020 and the number of companies exporting to over 100,000.
“Clearly, access to the single market is a key priority for many of our members,” Jonathan Hindle chairman, BFC says. “The movement of both finished goods and materials is a key consideration of the negotiations. Tariff-free trading should be a priority.”
Having responded robustly to the 2008 financial crisis, the industry finds itself with positive growth trends against the backdrop of a growing economy, the apparent revival of centralised industry strategy, and renewed demand for high-quality, British made products.
“To turn this potential into growth, the sector needs highly skilled people,” Hindle adds. “Roles such as machinists, upholsterers and furniture designers all require high quality training, whether that be through apprenticeships or other vocational programmes.
The furniture industry takes this issue extremely seriously. In October 2015, the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA) and the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers published ‘Mind the Gap’, an action plan that sought to fuel the development of industrywide initiatives to ensure the skills agenda is comprehensively addressed. Alan Chapman, director of Steinhoff UK Manufacturing, says that the sector faces three main challenges: weakening demand, increased raw material costs and availability of labour.
“Weaker sterling exchange rates have led to increased raw material input costs; this exchange movement can also be an opportunity but volatility makes it more difficult to manage,” he says. “We are not seeing existing immigrant workers leave the business to emigrate, but the pool of new workers is shrinking due to low unemployment levels.” Despite these challenges, Chapman believes that the UK is now well placed to compete against global competitors.
“We make a quality product with leading designs that satisfy the UK market and, more importantly, we have a shorter lead time to consumer compared to imported products, which means less risk to the retailer,” he adds. “Exchange rates are also helping us to be more competitive.”
Skill and speed
The furniture sector has a long legacy of skilled furniture makers, and the ability to work closely with retail partners in providing quality products within short lead times.
“Being competitive is a constant challenge and we therefore invest in all aspects of the business,” Chapman says. “In our case, this has included state-of-the-art cutting machinery, in-house sewing facilities, improved design and development teams and training and development of employees with key skills to meet business needs. Clearly being part of a large group such as Steinhoff also provides significant benefits.”
“The future of the UK furniture industry provides opportunities as the retail climate changes and consumers seek best value. These will come with challenges but, as the UK consumer demands great products at affordable prices, the furniture industry will respond.”
Investing in digital
“We raised prices towards the end of last year in response to cost pressures in our business and the early signs from this are encouraging,” Ingle says.
Now a multi-million Pound business, North-East based furniture manufacturer Godfrey Syrett was founded 70 years ago, to supply the fledgling NHS with furniture. Like many companies in the sector it faces a changing industrial landscape and must continue to evolve. Mark Dixon, executive chairman, believes it is important to invest in automation technologies in order to update current processes and remain competitive and profitable, as well as continuing to invest in a skilled workforce, ready to adopt these new practices.
The firm recently committed £450,000 to a state-of-the-art Homag BMG machine, which has been installed at its manufacturing site in Langley Moor, Durham. The multi-production system is to be used for cutting, edging and boring furniture panels and will reduce time spent in manual handling by manoeuvring production items automatically.
“One of the biggest challenges for us is managing the organic growth of the business,” he says. “We have grown quickly in some areas – soft seating, for example. Over the past two years we have invested close to £1.5 million in digital manufacturing technology and this will remain a key part of future plans and developments. We’re currently working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) as they assess and evaluate our production facilities. This will give us a clear understanding of the changes and improvements we can make to streamline our processes and improve efficiencies, ultimately creating an even better product and service offer.”