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UK textile industry - The future landscape

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Clarion was delighted to host a roundtable event at the Harrison Spinks Innovation Centre recently. The topic was ‘The future landscape of UK textiles’, within a particular focus on the furniture and interiors textile industry, a sub-sector of the wider textiles sector, and an industry experiencing change and upheaval.

The discussion was wide-ranging but ably led and guided by our guest speakers, which included Harrison Spinks, the most vertically integrated biggest bed manufacturer worldwide. Other contributors included local training and development facility, the Textile Centre of Excellence and The National Bed Federation, the trade association representing the bed manufacture and supply sector. Attendees also included industry-leading companies such as DFS, Deluxe Beds, IFG Drake and Waxman Fibres.

Clarion’s Business Development Director, Steve Crow kicked things off with an introduction touching on the long history of Yorkshire textiles. Yorkshire was once at the very heart of the UK’s woollen and textile industries, supplying to the entire Western world.

Yet, while the textiles industry in the Yorkshire and Humber area declined precipitously over the past century, succumbing to the twin perils of cheap overseas labour and the introduction of synthetic fibres sourced from overseas, the same can’t be said for bed manufacturers. As Jessica Alexander, Executive Director of the National Bed Federation informed us at the event, there are 150-200 bed makers in the UK, and a large proportion of them are based in West Yorkshire. The textiles industry’s loss has proved to be bed manufacturers’ gain, as the large mills that once housed the Yorkshire textiles industry make the perfect space for manufacturing beds and mattresses.

Textile industry innovation

However – and much like the textiles industry before them – the UK’s bed manufacturers have been disrupted by cheaper overseas imports, which have embraced such innovative new ideas as roll up technology, whereby mattresses are rolled-up in a box, which makes them easy for customers to transport, and easier for companies to deliver. However, although there is ease for the customer, it makes the manufacturing process heavy for business, by combining several components from different sources.

And yet, the roundtable discussion really highlighted how vital innovatory concepts are to an industry often viewed as traditional.

Richard Essery, MD of Spinks Springs, described the company’s approach to innovation as being at the heart of everything they do. As the most vertically-integrated bed manufacturer in the world, they control their entire supply chain, which gives greater flexibility, higher profit margins, lower costs and reduces waste which affords them to innovate more easily. Their investment in the steel Industry means their springs are made from ultra-fine wire, reducing the weight of the steel mattress springs, and leading to lower energy consumption and carbon emissions in production and distribution.

Sustainability and recyclability in textiles

The recycling of furniture - and namely mattresses - is an issue in an industry which is heavy with the use of synthetic materials and chemical processes. A ‘greener’ approach, and huge challenge sector-wide, is addressed by The National Bed Federation in their most recent report and plea to avoid 75% of new mattress sales from reaching landfill by 2028. We heard that Harrison Spinks are reducing their footprint by embracing the use of natural fibres and botanically sourced substances that remove the need for chemical treatment. This is showcased in their latest pocket spring product which uses ultrasonic waves to weld the material , as opposed to using glue. Overall, with a reduced footprint in production and distribution, and improved recyclability of the product when it reaches the end of its life, contributes towards their ultimate goal - to create a completely closed loop mattress process; a mattress that is foam free, glue free and chemical treatment free, that can not only be totally recycled but save energy and lower carbon emissions.

As part of their process to improve sustainability, Harrison Spinks have also invested in state-of-the-art looms, allowing them to weave their mattress fabric themselves. This also helps respond to further challenges by “bring[ing] weaving back to Yorkshire”. Returning traditional skillsets to their place of origin is not just about embracing and preserving Yorkshire’s heritage, but filling both a skills gap and a skills shortage that has damaged the textiles industry and has the potential to become ever more prevalent for the furniture industry.

Closing the skills gap

The furniture industry’s polarisation into low volume/high quality products and high-volume/mass market products has presented it with significant skills challenges. Employers in the first market need high-quality manual skills that are more traditional, whilst those in the second market tend to require more technological and IT-related skills. Changing demographics - including an ageing workforce and the loss of European workers thanks to Brexit – and a lack of both educational opportunities and facilities have all impacted the industry negatively and may cause issues moving forward. Closer alignment with academia, access to more funding and making a greater number of apprenticeships available are solutions needed to promote and improve the opportunities available to people.

This kind of commitment to training and development in the Yorkshire and Humber region is supported by the Textile Centre of Excellence, a not-for-profit company owned primarily by West Yorkshire manufacturers, by way of delivering a wide range of high-quality training, research and development support and working closely with its member organisations to ensure the voice of the industry steers skills development. It also works with a range of public and private sector organisations to help develop activity that will stimulate innovation and enhance skills in areas of relevance to the region’s manufacturing industry.

On a larger scale, we discussed the necessity to streamline manufacturing operations and to educate on engagement with Industry 4.0 – the next ‘tech’ Industrial Revolution. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), in particular, are central to realising the fourth Industrial Revolution and this initiative helps them get to grips with the best way to kick-start their own innovation through informative courses on topic including ‘Robotics and Automation’, ‘Supply Chain Integration’, ‘Circular Economy’. However, we heard that there were concerns about delays, with Brexit putting many business decisions on hold.

This is why we applaud the ongoing work of The National Bed Federation, which has partnered with other trade associations from across the UK furniture and interiors industries, to create FIESTA, or the Furniture and Interiors Education, Skills and Training Alliance. The National Bed Federation discussed the creation in terms of combatting the threat of the widening skills gap, by encouraging more workers into the sector; enabling easy access to the highest quality education and skills training; and identifying and engaging with all issues and needs relating to education, training and skills, among other things.

Efficiency/ Streamlining manufacturing processes

Big Data – the amount we produce and how we can best use it – is a major factor in a lot of industries right now. That’s because measurement is one of the keys to management - once you understand your business better you can refine your goals, focus your efforts and improve decision-making. This is true for all activities across the supply chain, with data providing greater accuracy, clarity and insight into what’s working and what might not be.

It’s incredibly positive that there are such powerful regional examples of businesses and organisations coming together to ensure the future of their industry. However, as representatives discussed at the event, while collaboration between businesses may be helping to close the skills gap, gaps with internal communication exist in so many. The problem seems to be with management boards, who are failing to absorb valuable information from their staff, who have the most direct experience of dealing with consumers, handling the materials and using the machinery. As pointed out, if management is failing to capture this kind of data, then they could be missing out on potential sources of innovation. And as we’ve seen with Harrison Spinks, embracing innovative ideas are vital to keeping your business moving forward.

The use of technology, and data in particular, to help improve the furniture manufacturers industry marries what is one of the most vibrant and revolutionary industries with one of the most historic and long-lasting. Particularly as the wider textiles industry was equivalent to the tech sector of its day – becoming literally revolutionary as the industry grew, fomenting, then fuelling the Industrial Revolution. Given the level of innovation that continues to drive the guest speakers we heard from at the roundtable event, the furniture industry has a bright and blossoming future.

Perhaps there is an opportunity to strengthen connections between universities and the private sector, to revitalise the innovation agenda and kickstart another transformation in the way we make things.

If you have any questions about this article and would like to hear more, please contact our Business Development Manager Caroline Broad.

Disclaimer: Anything posted on this blog is for general information only and is not intended to provide legal advice on any general or specific matter. Please refer to our terms and conditions for further information. Please contact the author of the blog if you would like to discuss the issues raised.