Manufacturing with Steel: Bisley

During December our focus has been on metals, we have delved into both the UK manufacturing processes of metals, Jim Duddolph got Heavy with Metal and we have looked in to the enduring trends of metal finishes in the contract furnishing sector.  We also took the opportunity to speak with Helen Owen, Marketing Director at UK storage experts Bisley.  We asked Helen to tell us about Bisley’s long standing relationship with steel, how their engineering of steel has evolved and of course we asked about their award winning MultiDrawer!

Was the very first Bisley design made in steel? Can you tell us about the design? 
Bisley was created in 1931 when Freddy Brown, a panel beater working with luxury cars, started his business repairing damaged cars in a garage in St John’s, Woking in Surrey. A decade later the company moved to Bisley, Surrey where it builds a small manufacturing facility to undertake a number of wartime defence contracts. The first Bisley design was for a steel container to be dropped by parachute behind enemy lines. It was widely used by airborne forces throughout the war and Bisley received several commendations for the work from the Ministry of Defence.


Why did you choose to focus your manufacturing on steel at that time?
Steel was the material of choice for Bisley as our founder had worked with it for all of his working life. That said when the war ended, and the defence contracts dried up, Freddy was left with a manufacturing facility and no contracts to fill it. However, a London wholesaler, Standard Office Supplies showed Freddy Brown a steel waste paper bin and offers him an order for 24 on condition that he meets the necessary price, quality and delivery date. The rest, as they say, is history!


Do you use UK steel?
Bisley has always bought a substantial amount of steel from UK suppliers, however there are some types of steel that is not made in the UK, so we have to source that elsewhere.

The MultiDrawer is a very well known product, why was steel so ideal for this design?
During the 60’s and 70’s there were many letter trays and sets of trays but they were all plastic. Bisley produced a steel version which was obviously more expensive but with no moving parts would literally last a lifetime. People have found so many uses for their MultiDrawer cabinets often re-purposing them or handing them-on to other family members, something only achievable with Steel.


Do you manufacture exclusively with steel? 
The bulk of our manufacturing is steel product, however in 2016 Bisley purchased a small, specialist supplier of fitted wooden furniture for the Education market. Subsequently we made an additional investment to equip an 80,000 square foot factory for the production of panel-based wooden products and wooden components that complement our steel products. The ability to produce our own panels has allowed us to develop products that combine the strength of steel with the beauty of wood – our Be system is a great example of this. We have also been able to expand our brand into new markets including Residential, Hospitality and Education.

In recent years the cost of steel has dramatically increased, what impact has this had on your production?
The index cost of steel has increased by 61.6% in a little over two years. We have passed on some of this additional cost through in the price increases seen in the last two years but these increases have not absorbed anywhere near the full amount and the impact is directly reflected in our results.


To counteract these increases Bisley has made significant advances in the implementation of LEAN thinking throughout the manufacturing process which have significantly improved service reliability and quality of supply. Our LEAN journey continues throughout the organisation with the same level of application as we have applied in the last five years. We have invested in replacement machinery that incorporates the latest technology and have thus benefited from these advances. We have a program throughout the business to ensure that all our fixed overhead adds value. And we have invested in a wood-working facility that should ultimately reduce our exposure to steel costs.


Since beginning to work with steel the engineering of your designs must have evolved. What have been notable engineering breakthroughs?
The last 20 years has seen the price of steel increase in real terms and at the same time become more volatile. To help address this we have invested in new manufacturing equipment that has allowed us to modify our designs to accommodate reductions in steel gauge whilst maintaining or improving the structural integrity of our products.

What is next for steel at Bisley?
We have a significant product development road map ahead of us as we respond to customer needs, trends in the workplace market and to the requirements of new markets like workshop and education. We plan to continue our investment in the latest manufacturing technologies and create products that use the most appropriate materials whether this be steel, wood or a combination of both.

During December we also discussed manufacturing in steel with our BCFA member Harrison Spinks, the Leeds-based bed maker talked us through their substantial investment in a wire drawing facility, you can read our Q&A with Harrison Spinks managing director Richard Essery here.

Contact Bisley


About Alys Bryan

Alys is a knowledgeable design editor who is focused on instigating conversations, both online and in-person, with industry experts which challenge, educate and advance the commercial interior sector. Her training and 15 years of professional experience as a furniture designer for the commercial sector makes her uniquely placed to lead Design Insider as Editor
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