The evolution of modern manufacturing in West Yorkshire: From tradition to transformation

By Made in Yorkshire News
schedule19th Feb 24

The manufacturing sector in West Yorkshire has a long and storied history, dating back to the Industrial Revolution. Today, according to figures from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, West Yorkshire has over 6000 manufacturing and engineering businesses, many are specialists in advanced processes, R&D and product development. These businesses employ 117,000 people, representing one of the largest manufacturing bases in the UK and generating over £7 billion a year.


Modern manufacturing revolution

When you think about weaving in West Yorkshire, quaint images of old-world mills may spring to mind. Indeed, the history of West Yorkshire as a whole has been deeply intertwined with textiles and wool going as far back as the 14th century, but the modern reality couldn’t be more different.


The School of Design at the University of Leeds hosts the £1.7 million 3D Weaving Innovation Centre (3D WIC). The 3D WIC was supported by the European Regional Development Fund, and it is revolutionising the world of woven textiles and pushing the boundaries of traditional weaving techniques and associated technologies.


Led by Dr Lindsey Waterton Taylor, the 3D WIC is at the forefront of developing two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) 2D-to-3D weaving methods that promise to transform various industries. From fashion to aerospace, the applications of 3D weaving are vast and game-changing. Imagine a fabric that can not only be woven with intricate surface detail but also possess structural integrity and enhanced functionality via tailoring the yarn interlockings in the width, length and depth.


One of the key advantages of 3D weaving is its ability to create complex shapes and structures with ease. This opens up a world of possibilities for design engineering, allowing the creation of lightweight, tailored to near-net-shapes yet robust woven materials that were previously unimaginable. With its pioneering spirit and dedication to excellence, the Centre for 3D Weaving Innovation is set to transform industries and inspire the next generation of textile pioneers. Dr Lindsey Waterton Taylor explains:


“Typically, woven cloth is manufactured in a continuous length, and width wound/housed on a take-up beam at the front of the weaving technology. We now look to on-loom design-engineering to weave near-net-shapes that may be taken up by this front beam, or table to aid shaping, rather than standard flat wovens. Consider apparel and garment production, the woven cloth is usually cut and sewed to create the fashion silhouette, or even a car exterior shell.


“In other words, we are now revolutionising weaving principles, processes, and technologies, from the design and engineering stages from simple maquettes to computer-generated 3D geometries for production, and manufacture using the latest weaving technologies. The Weaving Innovation Centre presents an exciting opportunity to embed sustainability and near-to-zero-waste principles into textile manufacturing.”


The right chemistry

European funding to the tune of £1.6m, also from the European Regional Development Fund has contributed to the chemicals sector too. A four-year project designed to give small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) access to some of the world’s most advanced scientific analysis was called Project CAYMAN (Chemistry Assets for Yorkshire Manufacturing). Designed by academics at the University of Bradford’s Centre for Chemical and Biological Analysis, it began as a three-year initiative funded by £1.6 million from the European Regional Development Fund, with half that cost matched by the University. It was extended a further nine months based on its phenomenal success.


Between 2019 and 2023, the project helped 65 small and medium-sized businesses gain access to the highly technical scientific analysis of materials using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, an analytical chemistry technique used in quality control and research for determining the content and purity of a sample as well as for examining the molecular structure of different materials. The project gave SMEs access to some of the world’s most advanced scientific analysis and many of those SMEs used the analysis to develop new products, which in turn has the potential to create jobs in the region.


Dr Richard Telford, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Life Sciences, who is Director of the Centre for Chemical and Biological Analysis, said: “Project CAYMAN has provided an excellent means for the University of Bradford to engage with regional SMEs and given us the opportunity to showcase not only our facilities and expertise, but convey how high-level analytical science can be of benefit to developing industrial processes."


He added: “Project CAYMAN successfully met all its ERDF output targets, which, considering a large part of this project was conducted under COVID restrictions, was a major achievement. The success has demonstrated the University's capability to deliver regeneration projects and will provide a great platform to do so again.”


Project CAYMAN has now been succeeded by Project SIBLING (Scientific Instrumentation for Business Leadership in Innovation and Growth), a £1.9 million programme which is co-funded by the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) allocated via the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA).


Helping SME manufacturers avoid the risks of being agile but fragile

Another example of higher education supporting manufacturing businesses can be found in Huddersfield. Professor Liz Towns-Andrews OBE, Director of Research and Enterprise and the University of Huddersfield, has been instrumental in securing European funding to create the new 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (3M BIC), a flagship hub, supporting spin-in and spin-out companies, linked to the University and providing access to the markets, finance, skills and technology that SMEs are seeking. The Centre sets out to act as a catalyst to promote business-to-business and business-to-higher education collaborations.



The 3M Buckley Innovation Centre in Huddersfield was established more than a decade ago as a wholly owned subsidiary company of the University of Huddersfield and as a vehicle for facilitating collaborative relationships between the University and industry. The vision for the centre, which primarily serves regional SMEs, was a ‘spin-in’ type model to co-locate businesses alongside the University and provide a one-stop-shop. The centre showcases the University’s expertise and centres of excellence especially in the area of advanced manufacturing.


Professor Towns-Andrews is passionate about the support the Centre provides: “For many SMEs, cash flow and access to finance is a challenge, especially in the manufacturing sector, where technology is evolving rapidly. The size of an SME means that they can be relatively agile and respond to opportunities quite quickly but the cash flow and finance issues can render them quite fragile. An example of the ‘agile but fragile’ concept is the prohibitive cost of technology which may soon become outdated. In response to this, the 3M BIC offers access to technology which is key for the sector, in particular metal 3D printers and associated X-ray imaging equipment.


“Rather than a business investing significant capital in a metal 3D printer, the 3M BIC offers access on a per-job basis and an in-house designer to support companies develop ideas. This approach significantly de-risks the finance issue for business whilst at the same time giving them a route to explore the advantages of new technologies for the business.”


Adopting digital technologies to increase productivity and improve sustainability

The Shire Bed Company, based in Dewsbury, was founded in 1997 and the family-run business prides itself on manufacturing the best possible mattresses, bases and headboards using the finest materials and experienced crafters. Their goal is to provide the highest quality at exceptional value. They service three main sectors: contract, high-street (domestic) and internet trade. Fara Butt is a former secondary school teacher who joined the company as a director in 2004, driving business growth. Today she is also chair of the West Yorkshire Manufacturing Advisory Board. Fara is a strong believer in how the adoption of digital technologies can increase productivity and improve sustainability:


“The two most important things in manufacturing are productivity and sustainability. The use of digital technologies to improve productivity is key to making our manufacturing sector competitive worldwide. Furthermore, being more productive should lead to sustainable wins, whether that’s through energy efficiencies or smart production methods and materials. The two aspects should go hand in hand.”


Responsibility rather than choice

The increasing focus on sustainability presents both challenges and opportunities for the manufacturing sector in West Yorkshire. Consumers are demanding environmentally friendly products, and businesses need to adapt to meet these expectations. Implementing sustainable manufacturing practices, such as reducing waste, optimising energy usage, and adopting circular economy principles, can not only help protect the environment but also improve cost-efficiency and attract eco-conscious consumers.


Andrew Taylor, Managing Director of Specialist Glass Products in Huddersfield shares:“At Specialist Glass Products, embracing sustainability is not just a choice but a responsibility. As one of the UK’s leading glass manufacturers, it’s important that we do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint, NOX emissions, and raw material usage to protect our environment.


“Last year, we recycled 1,365 bags of cullet glass from our factory using the Saint Gobain Glass Forever programme, resulting in an impressive prevention of 542 tonnes of CO2 polluting the atmosphere and the saving of enough energy to power an average home for 387 years! Upholding our dedication to net zero goals, we've recently enhanced our polishing lines by investing in cutting-edge machinery. This not only streamlines production but also significantly reduces time and energy expenditures.”


Founded in Bradford in 1888, but now based in Leeds and with an additional site in St Helens, Widd Signs has a long-established reputation for innovation, design, excellence, and honesty. The same founding values run through the business today and now in the 21st Century, Widd Signs is also committed to sustainability as a guiding principle for its work.


Widd Signs operates in an industry previously known for being wasteful. Traditionally, materials required to create signage include environmentally unfriendly virgin plastics, acrylic and solvents, with much of the product ending up in landfill. However, Widd Signs has become a pioneer in the sector, leading the way forward in offering sustainable signage.


The company encourages its clients to consider renewable technologies, plus recyclable and alternative materials which are much kinder to the planet; as well as leading by example and operating two busy yet carbon-neutral manufacturing facilities following its investment in energy-efficient measures and machinery. This includes hundreds of solar photovoltaic panels to both its Leeds HQ and St Helens manufacturing facilities, a hybrid vehicle fleet and a £200,000 investment in boosting the acquired North West site's energy-saving measures, adding insulation, new windows and doors.


Gary Williams, Widd Signs’ Managing Director is conscious of the need for sustainability: 

“Widd Signs has a long history in delivering quality signage, and whilst these founding values remain, we’re conscious that the environment cannot suffer as a result of our work. 


“We’re committed to working with our suppliers and clients to source the best sustainable signage solutions, from solar-powered totems to environmentally friendly materials to ensure the signage we create and deliver is a quality product which will last years to come.”


Louise O’Brien is the Managing Director of Greyhound Box, a trusted supplier of corrugated cases. Specialising in consultation, bespoke design, and expert manufacturing of packaging, Greyhound Box’s solutions have sustainability at their core.


“Increasing the sustainability of the manufacturing process has been one of the major trends that we’re currently seeing within the wider industry at the moment. With many looking towards implementing new technologies and processes that will help them ensure their businesses' resilience to future Government regulations surrounding sustainability. I think this is a positive change within the industry, and one that we here at Greyhound Box are really excited about. Sustainability has always been at the forefront of what we do, so seeing others jump on board to become greener is great to witness.


“On top of improving their sustainability credentials, another thing that we’re seeing more of, within the industry, is a holistic approach to ensuring business resilience. Internally, we here at Greyhound Box are focusing on both our workplace organisation and the long-term training of staff members to ensure that we are not only at the top of our game for our customers, but also able to withstand changes in the larger market.”


E3 Recruitment is a patron of Made in Group, having led the provision of talent solutions for their members since 2018. James Soden is a Director and Business partner at the company.


“We've been working with one particular Huddersfield-based manufacturing client for several years. They were looking at the demographics of their existing workforce, and, at the time, they had a workforce in the business that was about 5% of South Asian heritage, but when you consider Huddersfield as a whole, the actual demographic at that time was closer to 15%. We've since spent time working with the client on how we can address that to be more representative of the local population in the workforce.”


The power of community

Andy Dawson is Managing Director at Brighouse-based Siddall & Hilton, a long-established manufacturer of welded wire mesh for perimeter fencing, industrial fabrication and construction applications. The company has been in existence for 126 years and they are the biggest welding mesh manufacturer in the UK. Employing 55 people, the company will process 16,000 tons of steel per year with a turnover of £28 million.


The company manufactures for three market sectors, construction mesh, and industrial mesh but its largest area is fencing and perimeter security. This is used in anything from demarcation for schools and parks, to high-security installations for nuclear infrastructure and prisons, including a high-security prison in Singapore. They also export to markets such as Saudi Arabia.


Andy is a believer in the power of community in business: "SMEs, not just in West Yorkshire, are struggling and facing significant turbulence in terms of cost of living, cost of energy, and cost of supply chains. It is challenging. So, in terms of manufacturing, you have to keep improving and honing your model and keep developing people. In the last ten years recruitment and culture in business is even more important than it's ever been.


"People view their employer, their colleagues and peers as a community because over the last decade, maybe a little bit longer, communities have broken down so people don't interact in the same way they used to. People don’t join social clubs and there are no such things as street parties anymore, or very few, so the place of employment is the community hub where people come and interact with one another, so that's a vital part of the community. Companies need to focus on culture and they need to get that right.”


When it comes to being a member of Made in Yorkshire, Andy is adamant that community is key here too: “I'm incredibly keen on networking and I'm immensely proud of what we do and how we do it here. I'm also immensely proud when I can showcase the business and invite other manufacturers to experience it. And I'm always keen to learn. I like visiting other businesses and understanding just how they do it too. We all have something to learn from one another. It's the way that you do it that makes all the difference.”


Expanding markets

West Yorkshire's manufacturing sector has a significant opportunity to expand its export market. With a strong reputation for quality and technical expertise, businesses in the region can tap into international markets and increase their global presence. The government's support for export initiatives and trade missions can help businesses navigate the complexities of international trade and access new markets.


UK valve design and manufacturing company, Blackhall Engineering, was founded in 1965. Today it has a broad base of expertise, particularly within the water, power, oil and gas, and cryogenics industries. They aim to combine their extraordinary heritage with tailored innovation, providing valve solutions for clients all over the world. Their ‘valvologists®’ build long-term relationships through trust and professionalism, manufacturing valves that provide ultimate longevity for any fluid, any temperature and any pressure.


Managing director, James Blackhall shares the reason their West Yorkshire location works so well for the company: “At Blackhall Engineering, we've long been champions of Yorkshire's manufacturing prowess, supplying and crafting the world's largest valves with a deep commitment to local industry. Our supply chain is rooted in the north, leveraging the rich heritage and expertise found in Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, and beyond.


“Embracing Through-life Engineering Services (TES) reflects our dedication to innovation and quality throughout the valves’ life. The Blackhall ethos is a testament to our support for 'Made in Yorkshire' products, ensuring that our valves not only lead in performance but also in longevity, reliability and safety. This approach strengthens our local ties, highlighting the importance of supporting regional craftsmanship and engineering that stands the test of time.”


Over in Leeds, Sound Leisure has been manufacturing high-quality jukeboxes in Yorkshire since 1978. Still family-owned, the company remains one of only two traditional jukebox manufacturers in the world. Export is critical to the business. Chris Black, Managing Director explains: “We're international. It's just finding that next country and that next large customer. We deal with distributors around the world rather than trying to sell directly. We prefer to set up an arrangement with a distribution partner in the region. We've successfully done that in Germany this year, which has been fantastic. We're exporting to China, Japan, Thailand, America, Europe etc, so we're quite well spread. For us, the opportunities are finding new markets and then deciding how best to access them.”


Weight expectations

A newcomer to Yorkshire is WOMAG Weighing, a company that supports manufacturers across the UK with all of their weighing requirements, from consultancy and design, to servicing and calibration. Tom Marren, Director at WOMAG, explained why the Midlands-founded company decided to expand into Yorkshire: “Our new Huddersfield office is an exciting part of our expansion plans at WOMAG Weighing as we look to grow our presence in the UK. The location is a superb fit, offering a fantastic location for our growing team. Our company has gone from strength to strength in recent years, and with us now working with more customers in the north of the country, opening an additional new site in Huddersfield was the perfect next move.


“We work closely with our weighing manufacturing partners and distributors to provide affordable weighing equipment and bespoke weighing solutions, plus calibration and preventative maintenance services. Our mix of weighing services allows us to work as a partner to our customers, providing them with a full end-to-end weighing service that’s underpinned by years of experience and driven by the latest innovation and technologies.


“With the opening of our new site in Huddersfield, we’ll be able to offer more of these services across Yorkshire. As we expand, we look forward to recruiting locally and growing the WOMAG team in Huddersfield, plus becoming an integral part of the regional business community.”


True grit and a bright future

In conclusion, the manufacturing sector in West Yorkshire is a shining example of adaptability, resilience, and ingenuity. Despite facing numerous challenges post-Brexit and post-COVID, such as economic fluctuations, skills shortages and energy price hikes, the SME manufacturers in this region have shown remarkable flexibility and the ability to evolve with the times. Their commitment to innovation and continuous improvement has allowed them to stay competitive in a rapidly changing business landscape.


The true grit of West Yorkshire's manufacturers serves as a testament to the region's industrial strength and its bright manufacturing future.


Header image: 3D Weaving Innovation Centre. Credit - Leeds Institute of Textiles and Colour