There have always been idealistic rumblings about the need/desire to bring manufacturing back to the UK and events in 2020 and early 2021 have certainly magnified the issue. The COVID-19 pandemic, humanitarian concerns and the uncertainty brought about by Brexit are some of the key factors that have led to a cry for returning more manufacturing to the UK.
Running a product design consultancy that specialises in innovative new consumer products, we’ve never had so many clients (both entrepreneurial and small business) wanting to find a UK manufacturer before. However, with the news that China’s economy is bucking the global trend, is it naïve to believe that we can bring manufacturing home?
China has spent decades setting itself up as the hub of global manufacturing. The tales of poor quality, that made it the butt of ‘made in China’ jokes in decades past, are no longer pertinent. China now has an incredible infrastructure of suppliers, of both components and materials, and manufacturers with extensive knowledge and abilities. Until recently, these facts alone meant that it was pretty hard to beat China on unit price or quality when it comes to manufacturing consumer goods. But are things changing…
Since early 2020 we’ve noticed several key changes in our manufacturers in China. COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns are still occurring and shut factories with very little notice. Many are now, quite understandably, focussed on producing PPE due to the vast demand for it. As a result, some factories don’t have much capacity for new products, or have closed their sampling rooms, especially if initial production runs are small. Alongside this, it is obviously difficult to fly to China at the moment, which has an impact on developing relationships with manufacturers and managing sampling and production.
With Chinese New Year just a couple of days away, the factories are all due to close for several weeks. The Chinese government has staggered factory closing dates but there may well be further outbreaks as a result of the mass movement of people during the celebrations. This may well lead to further disruption.
Manufacturing and selling a commercially viable product isn’t all down to the components, materials and manufacturer. One key element to a venture being profitable is shipping costs. Until recently, when balanced against other higher costs in the UK, shipping costs from China have been low enough to ensure that production in China remained the obvious choice.
However, recently there has been a massive shortage in containers, which has led to a backlog of goods in China and huge increases (of up to 10x) in the cost of containers. This is driving up the landed unit cost of products manufactured in China. These recent articles by the BBC and Bloomberg explain the situation more fully but suffice to say, whether this will be a long term issue or not, with all the uncertainty we are facing on a global scale, businesses and start-ups are keen to find alternative solutions to avoid these excessive costs and manufacturing in the UK is an obvious one!
There are also perceived moral objections due to the reporting by the western press of the situation in Hong Kong and in Eastern China regarding the treatment of the Uighur people. These issues, coupled with the rhetoric coming out of the US following the trade dispute and the friction between the UK government and China regarding Huawei’s involvement in 5G, have also contributed to more people wanting to manufacture locally.
Having said all this, the reality is that the vast majority of suppliers and manufacturing partners are still in China and, in our experience, Chinese manufacturers are the most responsive. It remains difficult to find manufacturing partners in the UK who will even quote rapidly and the costs are often prohibitively high. Not only this, but UK manufacturers are now swamped due to an increase in demand!
It is so hard to know, with the ever changing global economic, political and health landscapes, what the long-term effects will be on both Chinese and UK manufacturing. We still maintain longstanding relationships with some excellent Chinese manufacturers who have supported our clients for years. We have also had some successes recently with finding partners in the UK for businesses wanting to relocate their production and the search continues for high quality, responsive and cost-effective options to ensure that businesses old and new can continue to grow and develop new products in spite of everything.
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