From the Mag: Domestic Innovation

FINDING HOPE IN THE UNLIKELIEST PLACES words Seb Kemp photos Grant Robinson

FINDING HOPE IN THE UNLIKELIEST PLACES

words Seb Kemp photos Grant Robinson

Hope Mill, like many such industrial buildings of its era, is located right in the centre of Barnoldswick, surrounded by row after row of back-to-back terrace houses, uniform dwellings accommodating some of the town’s 8,000 residents. the streets are narrow, the roofs all matching slate, there are as many bicycles zipping about as cars, and the pubs still serve local ales. the high street and marketplace are like looking into a page from a Charles Dickens novel, as it retains a quintessentially quaint English ‘olde worlde’ feel. whereas most of Britain’s high streets look like a carbon copy of the next—a duplication of mobile phone stores, coffee shops, and national chain storefronts glued to market town buildings—every store in Barnoldswick, except perhaps the Royal Mail post office, looks like it’s owned and run by local people.

Barnoldswick is a peculiar aberration in the Lancashire countryside. It is the largest town in the British Isles that is not served by any A-roads. This quiet little mill town in the middle of the country hides behind a rolling patchwork of farmer’s fields, stone walls, and hedgerows. It’s this remote setting that, oddly, spawned the technological industry now thriving within it. During WWII, while looking to find a safer place to build the Merlin engines for the Air Force, Rolls-Royce moved its production facilities from areas susceptible to air raids, and to this day has substantial production plants here, employing over 1000 local staff. However, Rolls-Royce is not a self-sufficient giant in isolation, and requires many other businesses to feed into it. Because of this, many more high profile companies have formed or moved here, making the area a hub of technical, scientific and engineering prowess. 

It was at Rolls-Royce that Ian Weatherill and Simon Sharp met. Both were toolmakers, producing jigs and fixtures to make aerospace parts, and they shared a passion for motorcycle trials. Even as kids they had trained on bicycles to aid their motorcycle skills. in fact, as Ian is quick to point out, “That they said mountain biking was invented in america is a load of rubbish. Loads of us had been doing it for years over here on Tracker bikes. We all did it but it’s just that we didn’t have the marketing tools behind us to sell that sort of thing.” But that’s another story altogether and perhaps best left for the historians to delve into.

It was that riding background that got them into bicycles, but it was their jobs in the aerospace industry that helped them with the know-how and the tools to make the product. They started with a disc brake, taking one off a motorcycle and retrofitting it to a mountain bike. The first product they built from scratch was a mechanical disc brake. They built a hub to go with it and before they knew it the hubs were far outselling the brakes. The Hope hub has become a mountain biking icon and although it has been in constant evolution and had a few facelifts, the original was better than many other brands’ hubs are almost twenty years later.

Stepping onto the Hope factory floor is almost like stepping into a surgical space. Sure, there are metal shavings and swarf sprinkled about, but it isn’t too long before someone sweeps it up and the floor is back to a state that would make many chefs blush. The atmosphere is bright and airy, and although there are dozens of machines cutting and sluicing chunks of metal at an extraordinary pace, the noise is far from deafening.

Lined up down one whole side of the factory are six identical Matsuura 5-axis multi pallet milling machines. Each one costs £470,000. These machines only make up a small number of the total machinery in the room, but they totally dominate the space. They are some of the most high-tech milling machines available and are exactly the same as used by Formula 1 teams and the aerospace industry. An example of the terrifically intricate pieces these incredible beasts can churn out is Hope’s brake caliper: it starts as one solid lump of metal, gets jigged up on a pallet and pulled into the machine where it whizzes and whirls all over and around the lump, sometimes swiveling the tool head, other times the pallet itself, and often both at the same time. After fifteen minutes, thirty different cutting tools will have done the work required to form the exquisite shape of the caliper.

Oh, and it makes three calipers at a time, with 32 pallets all jigged up and ready to go, one after another, almost 24 hours a day. The machines can create shapes and complete tasks that beggar belief for a layperson like myself, but for Ian and co-owner Simon Sharp, the production process is just as fascinating as the end result. 

It seems to be as much about the means as it does about the end; pride in understanding how things work and being able to make and fix things yourself, a British character trait that is rapidly fading. These days, garden sheds and garages are being usurped by chat rooms and PlayBoxes.

However, Ian is quite adamant that what they do isn’t that complicated, and he can’t understand why more people don’t just try to make stuff themselves rather than outsourcing. “It’s not rocket science, it’s quite simple engineering. People have lost the skill to just do things themselves. Why does everyone think, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to Asia and pick it out of a catalogue’? Why can’t people just go slower and think, ‘Why don’t I get my own tools, take on a few lads and try to make it at home’? Just start small and make a few good frames rather than loads of crap, and as things get busier they can just expand slowly and evolve properly.”

But even if you have the knowledge and the equipment to make high-tech goods, wouldn’t it be far cheaper to get someone else to make it? Ian is quick to stamp that thought out. “A lot of people say we are expensive, but considering the actual machining that goes into our stuff, we are not. If you got that [hub] made at your local machinist yourself, it would cost you more than it would if you bought it at full retail price at a shop. you can’t buy stuff that is made like ours that cheap.”

Hope has a simple way of looking at things. If they are going to invest in the machinery then the only way to keep the price down is to keep those machines running around the clock. Each machine runs for an average of 23 hours and 50 minutes each day, seven days a week. rather than have the machines sitting there gathering dust, Hope’s idea is that they can just keep them producing, therefore bringing down the cost per unit of the machining. Simple, really.

All of Hope’s products are designed and built to very high standards that their own workers set. They do tend to last longer and certainly suits the rigors of the wet, abrasive riding conditions of the north of Britain. “It’s wet, mucky and people bash their bikes about. A lot of other stuff is designed in California for their good weather. That some companies make hubs with no seals is a joke! you have to make it last. Simon has a thing that once it’s out the door, he never wants to see it back again. Our warranty desk doesn’t have too much to do as we don’t often get things back, but if we do we can sort it out right here and now. We have never had to issue a recall either. The amount of recalls you see now is awful, all this stuff made in Asia that no one knows where it’s from or who is accountable,” proclaims a very proud Ian.

Everything we had seen and experienced on our visit to Barnoldswick reminded me of a matryoshka doll. There is the little old town, hidden inside the green valley of Lancashire; then inside the town are the many old mill buildings which surprisingly contain such high technological innovation, one of which is Hope Mill; then there is the old fashioned, commonsense thinking hiding inside every perfectly formed product that rolls off the factory floor. Each layer protects or supports the next, and retains characteristics that often feel deserted in modern times; those of self-reliance, prudence, practicality and canniness. Juxtaposed against this is an assurance that Hope is very much forward-thinking, bold, dynamic and innovative. It reminds me a lot of the kinds of traits I admire in New Zealanders.