Birkbys: a name for 130 years
Birkbys has not only enjoyed an unbroken existence at Liversedge, West Yorkshire, since its foundation in 1867, but has been continuously engaged in the plastics industry from the early years of this century following the development of phenolic resins, the first true synthetic plastics, by Leo Backeland. This record may well entitle Birkbys to claim the longest-lived name among British plastics processors. The author, an ex-employee of Birkbys, recounts the highlights of the company’s long history.
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The Birkby family purchased an existing small tannery and chemicals works in Liversedge in 1867 which was the basis of the business over the next 40 years. But on hearing of Dr Baekeland’s development of new resins in 1907, they realized that their future could be changed. It was this foresight that led to Birkbys becoming a prominent company in the plastics industry and maintaining this position up to the present day. The image is the Birkby Factory c1933.
In the 1880s, electric tramways began to replace more limited horse-drawn vehicles and Birkbys became involved both with mechanical parts, such as its patented ‘oil-less, trolley bush, and with items for electrical insulation, using such materiails as bitumen, vulcanized rubber and celluloid, becoming known as a leading supplier of such demanding components It must have been this involvement that led the Birkby brothers Arnold and Freddie to decide soon after 1907 to get to know all about the new material, Bakelite. Prior to the First World War, Freddie Birkby travelled to America to spend time with the Bakelite Company to learn as much as possible not only about Baekeland’s brittle resins but, more important, how to use them by developing compounds which contained the fillers that enabled them to be processed into strong electrical insulating parts, their first area of use. Birkbys’ first patent on phenolic resins was granted in 1920, to be followed by others over the next 40 years.
It was fortuitous that Birkbys not only saw the opportunities with Bakelite but either already had the engineering resources or was able to get help to make all the necessary machinery. The resins had to be produced in pressure vessels, then compounded and the cure advanced using steam-heated rollers to produce workable materials. These were then moulded under heat and quite high pressures which again necessitated designing suitable tools and also hydraulic presses to manufacture the end product. Birkbys performed all these operations and continued to do so, except for later purchasing presses, until the company ceased moulding thermosets in 1973. (The tradename Elo was applied to both materials and mouldings.)
The Birkby brothers then developed the new materials for another major new industry of the era – motor-car manufacture. The first distributor heads for ignition systems, fuse boxes, light reflectors, small instrument cases and even woodflour-filled dashboards were made at Liversedge. Then between 1920 and 1960 Birkbys became a major producer of telephone cases, handsets, ear and mouth-pieces, for most of those years predominantly in traditional black phenolic. The third area that was developed from the late 1920s was radio equipment: in 1932 Birkbys moulded the then largest wireless cabinet using a one-and-a-half ton tool. During the Second World War, Birkbys produced some items for military use, such as pistol and bayonet grips, parachute harness buckles and numerous knobs and switches but these were of less significance. The switch to thermoplastics Although thermoplastics began to be developed in the 1930s they did not become available for mass production until after the war. Birkbys was a few years behind competitors in injection moulding these materials, which were more versatile than the established thermosets but did not take long to catch up. The company converted an old 1937 phenolic telephone mould to produce the first acrylic cases in May 1952. After later development using ABS this was to result in Birkbys becoming the major supplier of telephone mouldings not only to the General Post Office (GPO) directly but also to all the latter’s suppliers. At one time over 75% of the company’s business was in telephone parts and the associated exchange equipment.
In 1928 the Birkby family had decided to form itself into a limited company, Arnold and Freddie each having one share. Sadly, Arnold died in 1949 so did not see the later developments. In 1959, Freddie had to retire through ill health at the age of 75, so the family association ceased. The company was sold to AT&E, a major customer, but within three years was taken over by Plessey Co. which was to own Birkl)ys for over 28 years. Although these takeovers were not liked at the time, they were undoubtedly beneficial as it would have been difficult for the family in its later years to invest in the company to the extent that was required. AT&E built a new thermoplastics processing shop in 1959 and over the years Plessey more than doubled the manufacturing area, investing heavily in the latest machines.
The moulding shop which at one time contained over 200 presses up to 40 tons size
In the late 1960s Birkbys started to produce interior trim parts for cars in addition to the long-established electrical and electronic automotive components. The company also began to manufacture TV cabinets and record-player plinths, not only moulding them but more important, decorating them, either with paint, woodgrain finish or aluminium foil. At the same time more emphasis was put on assembly work. In 1968 Birkbys lost its injection moulding shop in a disastrous fire. Many companies could well have given up after such a catastrophe but, because of strong leadership and the support of the employees, the company not only recovered in a very short time but probably benefited with the investment then made in the latest machines, giving Birkbys an advantage over competitors for some years to come.
In the early 1970s Birkbys’ telephone business exceeded 1.8 million sets a year, and the company set the colour standards required bv the GPO that then had to be met by its competitors. However, it was at this time that the thermosets business was declining and, with the decision of a major company to cease manufacture of ignition systems and the requirement for more space for other business opportunities, this department was closed. The original involvement of Birkbys in thermosetting plastics had come to an end after 50 years, but the decision to concentrate on thermoplastics and the finishing and assembly of mouldings was considered to be the future of the company.
Through a reciprocal deal with Bakelite (UK) Ltd., Birkbys was able to start moulding much bigger parts, such as automotive instrument panels on 800-ton and 1000-ton machines obtained from the former. (Bakelite acquired the company’s phenolics interests in exchange.) It was at this time that Birkbys invested in structural foam moulding which, although fraught with many problems and at times considered not a good business policy, did give its first inlet into the business machine market. The first major product was an assembly of 13 parts for a cheque-processing unit. This later helped penetration into areas such as photocopiers, fax machines and computers.
Steady progress was made throughout the 1970s, but the beginning of 1980 saw an economic depression in Britain and the future of Birkbys, like so many others, was in question. Plessey would probably have sold the company as it was not a core part of its business: however, with a new general manager. and an aggressive policy, Birkbys was able to ride out the problems and build up its resources prior to an upsurge in the European economy. Over the next ten years Birkbys not only re-established itself within the UK but more importantly became a major supplier in Europe and began its association with both American and Japanese companies.
Synthetic resin kettles. The plant became capable of producing over 200 tons of resin a week
The exit from telephones With the GPO, Birkbys’ engineers developed a terminal block which became known as the ‘Test Jack’ and could accommodate 100 lines, whereas previously the same area could only take 40 lines. The main problem in getting a telephone at that time was not with the instrument itself but the capacity of the exchange, and the ‘Test Jack’ helped to resolve this situation. However, the mid-1980s saw another major decision: no longer to participate in the telephone business. On the one hand the market was getting saturated and on the other more model variety was being required. Birkbys decided that, with the proposed privatization of the GPO and imports from the Far East coming into the UK, it was time to concentrate on other market opportunities, particularly with those overseas companies wanting to set up manufacturing facilities within Europe. The first two major customers with whom Birkbys was able to do business were IBM and Xerox, undoubtedly due to the large investments which had been made, especially in computeraided design and in the modernization of the laboratories.
In 1989 Plessey succumbed to a takeover by GEC-Siemens so, after a successful 28 years, Birkbys again had new owners. However, because the company did not fit into the long-term business strategies of either GEC or Siemens, it was put up for sale. Birkbys’ success can be measured by the fact that over 100 companies worldwide showed an interest in its purchase. In 1990 the Marubeni Corporation of Japan, one of the largest trading companies in the world, succeeded in buying Birkbys. Marubeni has continued with the investment necessary for today’s high-quality manufacture, including setting up a new facility in Scotland to support the now-major customer Sun Microsystems. The plant at Liversedge also continues to be updated to enable Birkbys to maintain its standards for all its customers, such as Ford, Nissan, Toyota and Black & Decker.
Past attempts to use an alternative title for Birkbys have never succeeded, as customers have always wished to use the name. So today after some 130 years, the company is still trading as Birkbys Plastics Ltd. and well recognized as a major supplier of plastics mouldings and, more important, of engineering components, not just in Britain but throughout Europe and also in America. It is also good to know that the company has survived for so long on the original site at Liversedge.
In these days it is extremely difficult for any manufacturer to anticipate the future as one cannot see beyond the next few years with any degree of certainty. Not only is the marketplace constantly changing but the pace is forever quickening and the design life of products ever shorter. Gone are the days when Birkbys would receive orders for millions of’ telephones in just one style with a limited colour range, to be made over many months. Nowadays one has to conform to Customers’ requirements with limited runs on a ‘just-in-time’ basis. However, with the support of Marubeni and its own customers, Birkbys is well placed to remain a dominant company in the plastics world.
Birkbys Ltd. under their trademark ELO were major manufacturers of telephones, principally from phenolics. These products required considerable skills in both design and manufacture – not least of which were the finishing operations such as mopping and polishing. The range of telephones featured in this advertisement date from the 1920s to the 1960s.
This account of the history of Birkby’s was taken from plastiquarian no. 18 (1997)