While some describe current market condtions as ‘a struggle’, most of our interviewees are fairly positive about prospects for UK woodworking machinery sector, at least in the short term. Warnings of an imminent global downturn continue to echo in all sectors of the economy, yet capital is still readily available at comparatively cheap rates, which one commentator believes is helping to buoy the market for machinery.

‘Interest rates are low and new wood machinery is going reasonably well,’ he said. ‘We always want more but, under the circumstances, it’s not too bad.’

Machinery manufacturers who export also are said to be benefiting from even greater activity in overseas markets, particularly in the Far East.

The traditional dip in the summertime market, which one contact says he has observed since the 1960s, seems to be slightly worse this year. ‘I’ve always found that August has been a quiet time because it is the holiday period,’ he said. ‘But of late it has been quieter.’

Sales of sawing equipment are said to be holding up well on the back of steady demand from solid wood furniture makers and manufacturers of leisure and garden furniture. ‘It is not happening every day but there are certainly people investing,’ said a supplier.

In contrast with many manufacturing operations, a number of contacts say their servicing and spare parts supply businesses are doing well.

Key exhibitions

The Woodworking Machinery Suppliers’ Association (WMSA) is preoccupied with arrangements for a number of key exhibitions this year, including WoodMacAsia, which is scheduled to take place in Singapore from September 4-7, and shows in Ireland and Valencia in September and November.

The association is planning to run a joint stand of about 48m² in Asia and is currently establishing the number of firms that plan to take part. A slightly smaller area has been booked for Woodworking Ireland, which is a smaller show, although bearing in mind Ireland’s status as possibly the world’s last remaining ‘tiger economy’, most people are confident it will be a great success.

‘Quite a few members are exhibiting in their own right out there, so we’ll be looking after both their needs and the needs of those who are sharing the stand with us,’ said the WMSA.

The organisation is very positive about the potential of both of these shows to generate business for exhibitors, though many of its members are said to be becoming increasingly concerned about conditions prevailing in the wider market. ‘From a commercial point of view, talking to the members, there does seem to be a degree of concern as to whether there is a recession coming,’ said the spokesperson. ‘But nobody really wants to talk about it because there is always this aspect of “are we talking ourselves into it”? We are optimistic about the exhibitions and members are keen but it is difficult – sometimes when companies need to do the most, they can least afford it.’

General investment levels in the industry may be stimulated by a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) initiative, now under way, which involves upwards of 40 different trade associations including the WMSA. The 2005 Project aims to inject competitiveness back into British industry and put firms on an equal footing with their overseas counterparts, which are deemed to be more streamlined. Precisely how the scheme will tackle issues such as low pay remains to be seen but more details should emerge in mid-September, after in-depth consultation and research.

Many of the associations will be putting a case for making government policy more ‘manufacturing-friendly’ to the DTI, which is conducting a survey into the levels and types of funding that have been channelled through the department in the past, in order to ascertain how the money helped recipient firms and whether it could have been used better.

Bouncing back

Industry stalwart Wadkin appears to be bouncing back after its recent bout with the receiver. The historic company went into receivership primarily because its large machine-building operation was uncompetitive in comparison with those of manufacturers in Germany and Italy. Add to this the effects of the strong pound and Wadkin increasingly found itself forced out of the lucrative American and European markets.

In what may turn out to be a shrewd move, bearing in mind the evident resilience of the service sector in contrast with manufacturing, the rejuvenated Wadkin has been separated into two. Wadkin Manufacturing and Wadkin UltraCare, the latter of which will focus efforts on the after-market business, including servicing, parts supply and tooling supply.

Wadkin Manufacturing, which is currently making a batch of machines ordered by one of its Continental distributors, aims to be producing more than 30 classical and grinding machines a month by year end.

The decision to let Wadkin UltraCare concentrate entirely on serving and supply makes perfect sense, in light of the fact that Wadkin holds all the rights to supply parts to worldwide distributors of all its branded woodworking machinery, of which there are untold numbers of units still in operation.

The company is now working hard to correct the widespread misapprehension among machinery dealers and users across the globe that receivership had meant the end of Wadkin. ‘It is going to take us some time to re-establish our presence,’ said a spokesperson for the company, ‘because it was the front page that said Wadkin was no longer in existence, while all the things about Wadkin’s survival were on inside pages.

‘We have the strength of the Service Club,’ he said. ‘We service customers twice a year and the fact that we are contacting them on their regular date means that within six months we will have contacted all of our customers. We have also sent out thousands of leaflets.’

Positive order book

He added that the business is developing in a stable fashion, that the order book is positive and that it has ‘a very positive cash flow, which Wadkin never had, so we’re paying suppliers and everyone else on time’.

Wadkin UltraCare aims to provide a servicing operation for all makes and types of woodworking machine, regardless of manufacturer. It has recently re-secured a large servicing contract with Travis Perkins and is in talks with other ‘major operators’ in the market over similar deals.

Nottingham-based firm AL Dalton, Wadkin’s sole UK distributor for classical machines, is an equity partner in the new manufacturing operation.