Don’t let R&D diminish

Expertise that gave Britain world leadership in tractor design and production will be lost if we fail to develop a new specialised research and development centre warns Graham Edwards, one of the co-designers of the Trantor high-speed tractor.

Britain’s lead in tractor development followed World War II when companies such as County, David Brown, Ford, International Harvester, Nuffield/Leyland, Marshall and Massey Ferguson provided a massive manufacturing base, topping the world’s export league tables by shipping 75% of UK production to about 200 countries.

Since then more than 50% of production capacity has been lost, says Mr Edwards.

The factory closures, including the 2003 loss of Massey Ferguson’s Banner Lane plant at Coventry – once the western world’s biggest tractor factory – are in line with the decline in other UK manufacturing sectors and unlikely to be reversed.

“The volume of manufacturing and assembly remaining in the UK is just a fraction of what was there previously,” he says, “But more importantly the UK’s technical leadership is being seriously eroded.

This matters because innovation and R&D in the UK can make up for our decline in manufacturing, as the government has already acknowledged.”

Mr Edwards sees last year’s closure of the Silsoe Research Institute as evidence of the government’s lack of commitment to agricultural engineering although, he concedes, the SRI’s recent contribution to tractor development was small.

He suggests a new specialist R&D facility to serve the remaining UK-based manufacturers such as Case New Holland and McCormick would allow Britain to retain its technical expertise and provide the technology for overseas production.

Trantor Vehicles, Mr Edwards’ Cheshire-based company, built tractors in the UK until 1992 when the firm became a specialist research operation developing a new type of high-speed tractor to be built overseas.

The first production agreement signed 12 months ago gives HMT, a major Indian manufacturer, production rights to the new Trantor design with similar deals expected in other countries which can offer low production costs such as Mexico and the Ukraine.

“India is the world’s biggest tractor market with 250,000 sales per year compared with about 12,000 in the UK, but it is not possible to export tractors there because of Indian Government trade restrictions.

Instead we exported the technology for which our Indian partner is paying royalties and other fees.”

Since 1973 Mr Edwards’ company has invested 8m on R&D to produce Trantors including the new version for India.

He believes access to a specialised technology centre would have speeded up the programme and reduced the cost.