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One hundred years of SATRA: the 1970s

Continuing our decade-by-decade review of SATRA's century-long history by considering its activities during the seventies.

by Stuart Morgan

The demand for SATRA’s services continued to grow during the 1970s. This was driven in no small part by the organisation’s ongoing research into a number of issues affecting companies within the footwear industry. For example, in addition to the high-profile heat setting project which had won the prestigious Queen’s Award to Industry in 1969, SATRA made a major breakthrough in adhesion to rubber soles – especially thermoplastic rubber. This resulted in the development of the primer still known worldwide as ‘Satreat’, which was launched in 1970 and has been used over the years to chemically treat millions of pairs of rubber soles. Satreat enabled rubber soles to be bonded with PU adhesives – an operation which previously had only been possible if the units were thoroughly roughed or scoured.

In the first year of the new decade, SATRA organised a poromerics conference in Blackpool that was attended by over 400 international delegates. Also in 1970, SATRA jointly ran an international footwear conference in Evian, France.

Between January 1970 and July 1971, SATRA published no fewer than 61 instructor’s manuals covering the major operations in making, finishing and shoe rooming. The Footwear, Leather and Fur Skin Industry Training Board subsequently acquired the circulation rights for companies within the scope of this organisation.

More than 1,700 representatives of member companies visited SATRA during 1970. Laboratory work centred on upper preforming, welding, poromerics, polyurethanes and the analysis of wear returns. A brand-new section called ‘shoe engineering’ was opened in 1971. Its objectives were to generate engineering data on the stresses and strains imposed on footwear in wear, and its launch coincided with the re-emergence of platform footwear.

Measuring shoe flexing angles in SATRA’s shoe engineering section (1971)

A small team of SATRA representatives travelled to the USA in 1971 to attend the Atlantic City Exposition, and a symposium on ‘new shoemaking techniques’ was held in the Northamptonshire town of Corby. The following year, SATRA organised a foot comfort conference in the UK and jointly ran an international footwear conference in Evian, France. In addition, research was conducted by SATRA experts to investigate a number of health and safety issues, including the effects on workers of solvent vapours, noise and dermatitis. Data was also collected on the diagnosis of diabetes from worn footwear. Meanwhile, at the Rubbercon ’72 exhibition held in Brighton, Dr John Manning gave a presentation on ‘the use of a computer in setting specifications’ and Ron Whittaker (then head of shoe engineering) spoke on the topic of ‘strength and reinforcement of polyurethane poromeric materials’.

Members of the SATRA team meeting footwear producers at the 1971 Atlantic City Exposition

New SATRA services

A new quality service for SATRA members, called ‘total quality management’, was announced in the April 1972 issue of SATRA Bulletin. This scheme was said to be concerned with building in the control and improvement of quality performance as an integral part of effective company management, and involved five steps: design of a management organisation structure, preparation of a suitable quality control procedure, design of a control information system, the implementation of the procedure, and an appraisal of the new procedure.

On April 19th and 20th 1972, SATRA organised a major conference on foot comfort and health in Corby. The event was designed to review SATRA’s investigation into these properties, and was timely in view of the increasing use of impermeable and other man-made materials in footwear construction. Presentations were made by 11 guest speakers from UK and overseas companies, as well as seven members of the SATRA team. The conference concluded with a panel-led discussion on the comfort and hygiene aspects of footwear with impermeable emboss-moulded uppers.

During the early seventies, SATRA researched various footwear-related issues, including automation in the closing room, the link between permeability and foot comfort, the effect of fatty acids on urethane adhesives, the durability of PU-coated fabric and mechanical properties of upper materials.

Always enthusiastic about the application of technology, SATRA developed a system in 1972 for measuring the areas of irregular shapes, such as skins, patterns or flat shoe components. This method was based on the use of a television camera as a means of scanning and measuring area without making contact with the surface of the material.

In 1972 SATRA developed a system for measuring the areas of skins and other irregular shapes

According to SATRA Bulletin of May 1972, by using a TV system’s scanning techniques to generate a picture, it was only necessary to extract from the wave form generated in a standard television camera the voltage level developed when the scanning beam was passing over the object. A different voltage level was generated when the background against which the material was placed was being scanned, so long as this background was of a contrasting colour. From these two voltage levels, a shaped pulse was derived. This actuated an electronic timer, thus allowing for the time taken to scan the object to be assessed. Synchronisation was necessary to ensure that only one complete frame of the picture was scanned. The SATRA area measuring system was exhibited at Leather Expo, held in Earls Court, London in 1973.

SATRA North America

On January 19th 1973, SATRA director Dr Robert Payne signed a formal agreement with Canada’s Ontario Research Foundation to set up the SATRA North America Technical and Productivity Centre at the Foundation’s facilities. Two SATRA employees – Brian and Malvina Keech – moved out to Canada to help set up the centre, conduct the testing and provide other services made available to North American members.

The North America centre was officially opened on September 14th 1972 to what was described as ‘a warm and enthusiastic reception’. A full programme of events was arranged for the day, including a variety of technical presentations, followed by the opening ceremony conducted by Thomas Bata, head of the Bata footwear organisation. SATRA North America served member companies in the region until the early 1980s, when an agreement was established to develop SATRA’s membership services with an existing North American footwear body and the US government paid for this organisation’s members to join SATRA for five years.

A new doctor

Ron Whittaker – then head of SATRA’s shoe engineering department – was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) by Loughborough University of Technology in December 1972. This award was for work done at SATRA in conjunction with the Institute of Polymer Technology on the mechanical properties of polyurethanes. It was the first time that a Ph.D. degree had been awarded for research work done at SATRA.

​ Laurence Kieran (left) meeting young and fashionable shoemakers at a SATRA open day in 1973

Effective training

One year later, SATRA developed a programmed instruction package for training operators using the British United Shoe Machinery (BUSM) toe pulling and lasting machine. It proved extremely successful and cut training time from 20 days to around three. During the 1970s, SATRA management courses were in demand from footwear factory supervisors and other responsible members of staff. These were presented on such subjects as ‘leadership’, decision making’ and ‘interpersonal skills’.

Informing the world

In August 1973, SATRA organised a special exhibition at the Design Centre in London. Entitled ‘The Step Ahead’, this display showed the considerable amount of work that went into making footwear, as well as showcasing examples of SATRA’s research work. This presentation was seen by some 200,000 members of the public – from both the UK and overseas – and attracted a considerable level of publicity. ‘The Step Ahead’ was featured extensively in the footwear industry’s trade press, in addition to being highlighted in a number of television and radio programmes. No fewer than six radio interviews were given by SATRA director Dr Robert Payne on the pre-opening day alone.

During 1973, SATRA saw a considerable growth in demand from members for information – specifically of a commercial nature. This was attributed to the general revitalisation of the UK footwear industry which was looking closely at potential exports to Europe.

A 1973 photograph of SATRA's computer room

That year was a notable one for shoemakers, due to changes in the availability of materials and as a result of significant technological advancements. There was the growing awareness of the potential importance of the computer, both as a scheduling and production tool. There was also a continuing development of existing production processes and the introduction of new ones in many aspects of footwear production. These included the use of numerically-controlled machines for stitching and decoration, automatic lasting equipment, adhesion primers, programmed instruction for operative training and job enrichment experiments.

In April 1974, SATRA anticipated that ‘evolutionary progress’ would be made in small piecemeal stages by the almost random introduction of process improvements and new developments in many aspects of production. However, it was stressed that these ‘ad hoc’ developments were not to be seen as isolated innovations, but rather as many pieces of a gigantic technological jigsaw which would slowly interlock together until the picture of full automation finally appeared.

Busy despite industry hardships

Industry in the UK suffered in 1974. A three-day working week was introduced and inflation continued to increase. Nevertheless, SATRA’s commitment to research continued – for example, new adhesion techniques for PVC were developed and computer systems were devised for grading patterns and interlocking patterns. In addition, the shoe engineering department was making good progress in measuring strains in footwear and developing testing equipment. According to an editorial comment in the January 1974 issue of SATRA Bulletin, SATRA was doing ‘all it could to cut out waste without cutting corners’ in the face of the energy crisis and materials shortage.

Changes in SATRA’s structure were implemented in March 1974 to assist director Dr Payne in the development of important areas of work. John Bunten was appointed as research superintendent of new ventures, His initial responsibilities included an investigation into process economics, applying to the government for financial support for the footwear industry, producing a ‘technology for the footwear industry’ study and providing detailed plans to enable SATRA to meet the growing demands of consumerism.

The chemistry laboratory in 1974

The shoe engineering department and the lasts and shoes department amalgamated under Dr Ron Whittaker. Leonard ‘Lu’ Lucock became assistant manager of the technical services division, while retaining direct responsibility for all lasts and shoe engineering department projects.

The auditing of test methods and specifications continued to be the responsibility of John Maddams who, as principal coordinator of test methods and specifications, reported to SATRA deputy director Graham Butlin. In addition, John led the development of a new series of SATRA publications on shoemaking technology.

The adhesion and chemical research department was expanded to encompass soling research. This section was headed by Don Pettit, supported by soling material specialist Peter Kellett, who transferred over from SATRA’s test development department.

Overcoming the risk of slip

Assessing slip resistance

SATRA’s initial investigations into footwear slip can be traced back to soon after the organisation was founded, when studies were conducted studies using ramps and other simple test devices. Biomechanical research on the slip resistance of footwear began in 1974, with a fundamental consideration of the mechanism of slip during walking. At that time, SATRA technicians wearing safety harnesses would walk across a low friction surface and record where slip occurred. A force plate was used to measure the forces between shoe and surface, and slipping was analysed by multiple image photography. This work led to the design of the SATRA slip test machine in use today.

Personal accolades

Ted Hall, manager of SATRA’s technical services division, was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in the June 1975 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. This accolade was to mark the considerable contribution he had made to the footwear industry in more than 25 years’ service. Leslie Huggett – who had also been awarded an MBE and was the last active member of staff to have served SATRA in London – retired in 1975 after 45 years of service.

Innovative ideas

That year also saw another example of SATRA innovation, with the launch of ‘SATRAprinting’ – a method of decorating plain shoemaking materials using a transfer printing technique especially developed for polyurethane-coated leathers and fabrics. According to the announcement concerning the commercial availability of this process, any design which could be photographed could be ‘SATRAprinted’.

Following the award of the British Government’s contract to SATRA to develop fluid jet cutting systems for the footwear industry, the first equipment was installed at SATRA in 1975. It was used as the heart of a two-dimensional contour cutting system for footwear materials, and was intended to be a step towards the development of a complete materials cutting system.

The equipment, which had been developed in the US by the McCartney Manufacturing Company, used water mixed with a polymer. This was brought to high pressure through an intensifier pump – in which pressure and volume were controlled through a hydraulic drive – and delivered to an ‘accumulator’, where pressure pulses were levelled out. From the unit’s control panel, the high-pressure fluid was carried to a pneumatically-operated valve and delivered to the jet nozzle. The liquid, at a pressure of 40,000 pounds per square inch (psi), passed through the material to be cut, before entering a drain or effluent collection system.

In 1975 SATRA installed a high-pressure liquid jet cutter

The major benefits claimed for fluid jet cutting were the narrow cut width between pieces, the elimination of dust, no requirement for a blade that could become dull, no distortion of cut components when multi-layer cutting, and the ability to start and stop cuts at any location.

According to Phil Shaw – who was heavily involved in this particular project after joining SATRA in 1975 – research into high-pressure fluid jet cutting was conducted to see if the cutting process for synthetic materials could be automated. In order to begin this evaluation, SATRA was kindly loaned a very high-pressure pump by the Ingersoll Rand company.

“It would cut through anything, including your arm if you put it underneath,” remembers Phil. “The deal was that the pump came for free if they could occasionally bring in people who were their potential customers, and we would try to cut their products. So, as well as cutting shoe materials, we occasionally cut frozen runner beans for Christian Salvesen. We also cut Mars Bars, we sliced bread, and I think we had a go at slicing insulation panels for the roof.”

A change of leadership

Dr Robert Payne, who had been appointed director of SATRA in 1968 following his predecessor Donald Grimwade’s sudden death, was an acknowledged expert in rubber technology. During his directorship, emphasis was placed on SATRA helping to improve members’ competitiveness in the UK and around the world. He became chairman of the Institution of the Rubber Industry in 1970, and received the Colwyn Medal award for outstanding scientific services to the rubber industry. Dr Payne left SATRA in 1976 to become director of the Rubber and Plastics Research Association, but died before he was able to take up his new post.

Graham Butlin, who had joined SATRA as a research physicist in 1958 and had served as deputy director since 1967, succeeded Dr Payne as director in 1976. His time as chief executive was marked by SATRA being transformed into an internationally-recognised organisation.

Growing income

Total income exceeded £1 million for the first time in 1978. Considerable interest was shown by members in shoe performance forecasting and fashion technology work. SATRA’s worldwide membership continued to grow and one year later, the whole of the Australian shoe industry officially joined Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden in group membership. By the end of the decade, SATRA membership extended to some 1,100 companies in 26 high-labour cost countries around the world and the SATRA team in Kettering had grown to 170 employees.

HRH The Duke of Gloucester (left) visited SATRA in 1979 as part of the organisation’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations

The design of a prototype electronic shoe size calculator was announced in SATRA Bulletin of April 1978. Primarily intended for indicating children’s shoe sizes, this was able to measure – without contact – in any sizing system, including Mondopoint (a system of which SATRA was a significant developer during the 1970s). The child stood in a measuring well and indicator lights on a read-out panel showed when his or her feet were correctly positioned. A button on the panel was then pressed, after which the shoe size was indicated on the digital display. This equipment used fine beams of infrared light, one of which scanned the foot in a lengthwise direction, while the other scanned in the widthwise direction. An optical receiver was coupled to the transmitter to receive the beam.

Diamond Jubilee celebrations

SATRA celebrated its Diamond Jubilee year in 1979, and this was marked by a visit to SATRA House of HRH The Duke of Gloucester on 8th November. To commemorate his visit, The Duke unveiled a plaque on the wall adjacent to the one marking his father’s visit 30 years before at the opening of the Gloucester Block.

The photograph at the beginning of this article shows Tony Johnson checking a SATRA heat setter during the early 1970s.

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This series of articles is being published to mark the milestone of SATRA’s centenary during 2019.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 38 of the June 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »