DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.53289/XDTC3774

The excitement and challenge of a career in manufacturing

Will Butler-Adams

William Butler-Adams OBE CEng is Chief Executive Officer of Brompton Bicycle. He joined Brompton in 2002, became director in 2006, and took over as MD in 2008. Since then he has grown the company from £2 million turnover with 27 staff to £120 million turnover with over 800 staff. Brompton exports over 75% of its bikes to 47 countries through 1600 independent bike stores. He is a Chartered Engineer and is passionate about all things engineering. He was awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to Industry.


  • Manufacturing is not just about high tech applications
  • Politicians need to understand better the reality of manufacturing today
  • The products may not always be high tech, but technology plays a central role in production
  • Universities should inspire the next generation of engineers
  • There needs to be clarity about who is – and who is not – an engineer.

There is a perception that manufacturing industry is all high tech; semiconductors, nanotechnology, graphene, cutting edge space technology. Yet here we are, a bicycle company manufacturing in London – and bicycles are not high tech, are they? And we are selling our products to China, which is about to become our largest export market. Our politicians do not understand our sector. Universities are not delivering to our sector while parents are not being given the information they really need to guide their children’s career and study choices.


Politicians need to understand manufacturing – and to be educated by those doing it. Some years ago, I heard about a company that make fittings for bathrooms. Go to any plumbers’ merchant and there is a plastic fitting costing just pence to replace a broken U-bend. Made in the UK, it is as cheap as chips, there is nothing high value about it. They cannot be shipped in from China because they are so cheap, it would not make commercial sense.

However, while there is nothing high value about this product, examine the technology being used to make it and it is extraordinary. That is smart. That is the high-tech aspect – the manufacturing, not the application. Yet politicians cannot see it. To make our bike, we have used computers that are breathtakingly powerful to do things like Finite Element Analysis, we use robots, we use Metal Injection Moulding – just to make a bicycle. To

run our factory, we use Raspberry Pi everywhere, we write our own software in Python. In fact, we are trying to create a fully integrated company.

Then, when some celebrity in Hollywood rides one of our bikes, and suddenly people get excited about it, we can adjust our production strategy and planning. Within 10 days, we can completely reconfigure our supply chain to change what we need to buy, knowing that in three weeks’ time the North American market is suddenly going to start buying that bike. That is smart engineering. That is the value that we create in the UK: a fully integrated, sophisticated business, not just the product itself but everything in between as well. That can be done very effectively in the UK because we have a multi-faceted research-university collaboration and some innovative individuals.


I went to university. I spent four years there, including one in Spain which I really enjoyed. The other three years of mechanical engineering were awful and seemingly designed to put students off a career in the subject. The university lecturers did not seem interested in students. Only one lecturer had actually worked in a real company. The rest were focussed on producing academic papers, not on the students. Today, that has changed somewhat but there is still a long way to go.

Universities need to inspire, they need to excite, they need to bring alive what an awesome career engineering is. Yet the university lecturer is not measured on the outcome of the student. He or she is measured instead on how many research papers they have published: there is not enough focus on the student and on inspiring the next generation of graduates to go into industry.

So those who study engineering typically go to work in banking, or consultancy. I had such a painful time at university, but then I discovered this wonderful world outside and it was really exciting and fascinating and brilliant. But I did not get any inkling of that while I was at university.

The public

Going one step further back, what is the message being given to parents and school students about engineering? TV adverts offer homeowners with a plumbing, heating or electrical problem the opportunity to have an engineer come out and fix it. Well, they are not engineers. They are plumbers or electricians. But these big advertisers spend hundreds of thousands of pounds telling every parent that engineers fix things with monkey wrenches and screwdrivers.

When a celebrity in Hollywood rides one of our bikes, we can completely reconfigure our supply chain to change what we need to buy, knowing that in three weeks’ time the North American market is suddenly going to start buying that bike.

That is not on. To be serious about reinvigorating manufacturing, engineers need to be recognised as the people who design, analyse and produce items: they are not the same as the mechanic that changes car tyres. Rather, they are individuals who have gone through a three-year baptism of fire, to get to a point where they have a deep understanding of their subject matter. There are Learned Societies and Institutions that could come together to tackle this perception and remove the incorrect information about the sector that is permeating all too easily today.

There is so much for us to do but there are lots of opportunities everywhere. At Brompton Bicycle, we are providing mentoring on Masters projects at Cranfield and Imperial. We are working with the Catapults. We are

working with the Advanced Forming Research Centre, the Warwick Manufacturing Group, The Welding Institute. There are so many opportunities to spread the story about the excitement and appeal of manufacturing.

Brompton Bicycle uses advanced manufacturing and computer technology to create a fully integrated company.