15 November 1996

UK GROWS STRONG ON SPRAYER FRONT

British sprayer manufacturers are faring well in the face of stiff competition from their Continental counterparts. Peter Hill reports on their success to-date and their plans for expansion

WITHIN the farm machinery market, there are distinct sectors where UK manufacturers maintain a strong presence – telehandlers, potato grading and handling equipment, stock housing and feeding machinery and crop sprayers.

Sprayer makers, in particular, have not only carved a niche with companies like Sands, Frazier and Bateman specialising in self-propelled and low ground pressure equipment, but the volume manufacturers have turned the tide in what looked like becoming another sole province for overseas manufacturers.

"I think our collective success over the past decade has come largely from remaining close to our farmer customers and having the flexibility to meet their particular needs," suggests Mike Would of GEM Sprayers.

Building sprayers strong enough to cope with the demands of fast working and an intensive, high acreage spraying season is another, offers Mark Curtoys of Cleanacres, while Brian Knight of Knight Farm Machinery reckons innovative ideas, and a readiness to adopt facilities and equipment with safety and environment implications has also helped.

All three companies are expanding their operations this year to gear up production as demand continues to rise. GEM opened its £300,000 factory extension at its North Hykeham base near Lincoln in January, having started as a one-man business in rented premises some 13 years ago.

"Despite putting a lot of work out to sub-contractors, we have needed to treble the factory space over the past six years," says Mike Would. "Our move into self-propelled sprayers two years ago prompted the latest change and has a lot to do with our growth in turnover which is up this year from £5m in 1995 to over £7m."

Also in Lincolnshire, at South Luffenham, Knight Farm Machinery is in the process of moving into its new factory, a £1m investment that is the companys first purpose-built facility since production started 15 years ago in Ron Knights farmyard.

"This will more than double our existing facilities – but thats what we need to cope with the level of demand," says Brian Knight. "We are already producing more in a week than we did in 12 months, 10 years ago and we could sell a lot more if we had the resources to build them."

Expansion is also the name of the game at Cleanacres Machinery with an extension to existing production facilities scheduled for completion by the end of the year.

"We moved to this site 15 years ago and extended it four years later," says Mark Curtoys. "Now, we are set to double the area to cope with demand and get our order-to-delivery lead times down to more sensible figures."

Turnover at the company, based at Hazleton near Cheltenham, Glos, has increased by 60% over the past three years.

"We are building fewer sprayers than we were in the late 1980s but then we were producing a lot of 12m machines," says Mark Curtoys. "Now, we are building bigger, much more comprehensively equipped sprayers."

All three manufacturers agree that innovation, durability and specification to meet the demanding requirements of the UKs intensive arable farming system have been the building blocks of their recent success.

Technological advances have certainly played their part, not least developments like the Airtec twin-fluid nozzle system from Cleanacres. It may not have dislodged the conventional nozzle entirely, but more than 90% of the companys sprayers now go out of the Hazleton plant fitted with the Airtec system.

Knight pioneered active tracking drawbars which have made big capacity sprayers with wide booms a more practical proposition, while GEM was among the first to offer electronically-controlled steering drawbars. Knights achievements in boom design and, most recently, the Laser recirculation system have helped keep the company in the spotlight.

"The Laser system is revolutionising the way people operate their machines," claims Brian Knight. "It saves money and makes a positive contribution to more environmentally-friendly spraying; we are so convinced of its advantages that the system is protected by world-wide patents."

Mike Would of GEM Sprayers adds that UK manufacturers have been quick to offer whatever safety facilities have become available – including chemical induction systems, tank flushing with separate clean water supplies, hand washing facilities and cabinets for clean and used protective clothing. All of which, in turn, have promoted the safer use of pesticides among their farming customers and the operators that use their sprayers.

Ironically, the production of ever more sophisticated sprayers by these manufacturers has helped sustain a market for one of the oldest names in the crop spraying business. Allman is the last of companies like Evers & Wall, Ransomes and Dorman that pioneered spraying equipment after the last war, still to be in the business.

Although it is now producing larger, better-equipped sprayers to meet the demands of the Eastern counties, its principle business is with farmers wanting more modest equipment.

"Wales is our best market," says Clive Barber of Allman, "where there are lots of farms needing smaller sprayers."

Export sales also remain an important part of the Chichester, West Sussex-based business which saw a substantial revamp in recent years to using more sub-contract manufacture with on-site work now mainly assembly.

"Our export business is principally in Africa and the Middle East where the Allman name and reputation is still very strong," notes Clive Barber. "A lot of it is aid-related, which can be very up and down depending on the economic situation. Although export demand had fallen away substantially with the world recession, it has now recovered."

For other UK manufacturers, tapping the export market is not easy.

"We make machines that are bulky and inefficient to ship, and relatively expensive alongside locally-made equipment because of the specification," notes Mark Curtoys.

Cleanacres concentrates on selling its Airtec technology and regularly supplies kits to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and North America but also has customers in South America, Australia and New Zealand.

Distribution is the key hurdle in the way of GEMs export ambitions, says Mike Would, particularly in Continental Europe where local manufacturers, as well as internationals like Hardi, have long-established dealer networks.

"When you have a big operation like the French Excel group, which includes Tecnoma, Berthoud and Seguip, it is very difficult to find dealers," he points out. "We are actively looking at export opportunities, but it takes a lot of time and expense and there are many barriers to overcome."

In Germany, strict regulations governing the specification and performance of spraying equipment, not to mention vehicle regulations affecting self-propelled machines, have deterred many UK manufacturers from targeting the country, despite the prospect of a large market.

It has not deterred self-propelled specialist Househam from having a go, though. The company took the bull by the horns and arranged for the official vehicle tests to be carried out in Britain to seek approval for its Sprint self-propelled chassis.

The move was a success and Househam, which also has an impressive export record selling self-propelled sprayer chassis to Japan and elsewhere, now has the prospect of seeing the Sprint form the basis of a Rau self-propelled sprayer on sale across the Continent.

For Brian Knight, the United States holds a big attraction – if also a demanding challenge.

"Farmers and manufacturers there are beginning to recognise what UK sprayer makers have to offer in terms of design and expertise," he says. &#42

Yellow on yellow. Knight demount sprayers on their JCB Fastrac counterparts line up for the camera at Knights Lincs-based factory.