Bowers & Wilkins is 50 years old in 2016. As part of the celebrations of these five decades in the world of high-performance audio, we are running a series of blogs that investigate our history, our people, our technologies and our products. In this blog we look at the history of manufacturing at Bowers & Wilkins, and how this has expanded over the last five decades, while always pushing the quality of the products we make.
The history of Bowers & Wilkins can be traced by a number of methods: products, people, technologies are all valid methods of exploration. But in many ways it is the developments in the manufacturing arm that truly encapsulate the company’s growth and the world in which it operates.
What started with a couple of friends putting off-the-shelf drive units into wooden speaker cabinets in a lock-up behind the original Bowers & Wilkins shop has, over 50 years, transformed into a state-of-the art manufacturing operation – the heart of which is only three miles away from the place where it all started.
Location, location, location
Since 1966, there has been a Bowers & Wilkins manufacturing facility somewhere in West Sussex, whether that’s behind the original shop, in nearby Lancing, in what is currently the B&W Group Ltd Visitor Centre or on the Silverdale industrial estate next door, which was the site of rapid expansion in the 1990s. In 1989 four of the units on the Silverdale site were operated by Bowers & Wilkins, but by the end of the next decade all ten had been bought and turned into a single integrated production facility.
However, even this growth in capacity was not enough to meet requirements, and by the middle of the 1990s plans were already being put in place to move once more. Following two years of intensive work, which included driving 1,000 pylons into a brownfield site to serve as foundations, the scene was set for the largest expansion so far in Bowers & Wilkins’ history. Over a two-week period in Christmas 2001, the whole production operation was moved a few hundred yards to the purpose-built Dale Road facility that Bowers & Wilkins has used ever since.
But even this new site was not large enough to manage all production, and for ten years Bowers & Wilkins also had a manufacturing facility in Bradford, Yorkshire. B&W Bradford was responsible for the final assembly of Bowers & Wilkins 300 Series and 600 Series speakers. Over this ten-year period up to 2006, B&W Bradford produced over two million loudspeakers, using drive units still made in Worthing.
In 2006, with the goal of further consolidating and controlling manufacturing, B&W set up its own manufacturing operation in Zhuhai, China. To ensure continuity and mirror the UK production ethos, the transfer was overseen by Bill Smith, who had run B&W Bradford, together with Andy Board, who had been a manager in the Worthing factory. In the ten years it has been running, the Zhuhai facility has produced some two million products.
800 Series Diamond
The Dale Road factory is now where all of Bowers & Wilkins flagship products are manufactured including Nautilus and CT800. But primarily it is the home of the new 800 Series Diamond.
The demands on the site and staff involved in manufacturing these amazing loudspeakers has led to a number of recent developments, and while the site retains the new footprint as in 2001 the addition of new floors and other space saving strategies have been involved to accommodate demands such as cabinet manufacturing and increased polishing and painting.
The staff have all been upskilled as well – and had to learn the new procedures from scratch as well as coming to terms with the increasingly demanding tolerances in terms of performance and fit and finish. Bowers & Wilkins has always crafted the best speakers it is capable of, but the attention to detail in the new 800 Series diamond takes this to new levels.
It’s true that there have been many changes over the past 50 years, but one thing remains constant: the desire to produce the very best; the drive to leave no stone unturned in order to improve. This is something that the production arm of the company shares in common with its close-working cousin, the Steyning Research Establishment. They work with world-class industrial designers to create products that look as good as they sound – and that sound better than anything else that has gone before them.
Factory manager, Dave Ford expresses it best: “We all work together – the guys at SRE make sure it sounds as good as possible, and we make sure that it looks and is built as well as possible.”
“We’ve taken in more and more quality-critical elements. We’ve brought cabinet manufacturing here, we do more painting in-house and we’ve brought in drive-unit production. Over the years we have brought in-house those processes that are more dependent on quality.”
And the same is true for the China operation, where the UK quality control standards of the 800 Series Diamond are taken as the benchmark. Andy Board emphasises the point: “My management team and I ensure that we are as serious about inspecting the 685 S2s we produce here as the UK factory is about checking 800 D3s. ‘Good enough’ simply isn’t good enough, no matter how much the product costs or where it’s made.”
Read more about 800 Series Diamond here.