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One hundred years of SATRA: the 1990s

Continuing our review of SATRA’s century-long history, we report on a decade of considerable change.

by Stuart Morgan

In May 1989, a business planning team was set up, comprising nine members of staff and led by Dr Ron Whittaker. One year later, SATRA launched its strategy for the 1990s and beyond in a document entitled SATRA: The way forward. Some of the business planning team’s recommendations were: i) that SATRA should remain as a membership organisation, ii) it should accept membership applications from bona-fide companies directly connected with the footwear industry from a wider geographical area, iii) services were to be marketed to local industry not connected with the footwear industry, and iv) a board of directors was to be set up, with the non-executive directors chosen from member companies. Two technical committees (‘materials and products’ and ‘process and management’) would continue as before, apart from minor changes.

The report anticipated a number of challenges from the new decade. It mentioned expectations that the nineties would see new markets opening up, with overall prosperity increasing. It offered what was called a ‘safe prediction’ that more shoes would be manufactured and sold in the world, which would provide opportunities for all footwear companies. The report concluded by saying that the recommendations agreed in SATRA’s business plan would ensure that it would be in a position to help members to exploit these opportunities.

A new business structure

The start of the 1990s saw a drastic change to the management set-up at SATRA. According to the April 1990 issue of SATRA Bulletin, a decision had been made to move away from the traditional departments used within SATRA for several decades to a ‘modern business structure’. This was achieved by forming seven business areas, each representing a major field of SATRA’s operation, and covering both research and service activities. The heads of each business area had financial and organisational responsibility for their particular department.

A key reason given for this change was that over half of SATRA’s total income was then coming from the sales of technical and management services, courses, sponsored research and test equipment to member companies. It was therefore deemed important that these various activities would operate in ‘a more commercial and businesslike fashion’.

At the outset, the newly-established business areas were ‘finished product’, ‘manufacturing technology’, ‘membership and communications’, ‘equipment sales’, ‘materials’, ‘management’ and ‘clothing’. As this new structure evolved, the departments by the end of the decade consisted of ‘footwear technology’, ‘safety products’, ‘fabric care’, design and print’, clothing technology’ and ‘furniture technology’.

An early nineties version of SATRA’s footwear slip rig

The 100th SATRASumm system for upper materials management was sold in 1990 to sports shoe manufacturer New Balance, and a materials evaluation centre was established to speed up material testing. SATRA’s turnover for the first year of the new decade was £3.2 million.

SATRA also began to diversify in the services it offered. New business areas were established, each with its own branding. These comprised the ‘Footwear Technology Centre’, ‘Safety Product Centre’, ‘Clothing Technology Centre’, ‘Furniture Technology Centre’, ‘Design and Print’ and ‘SATRA Quality Assurance Limited’. In October 1990, this new structure was fine-tuned with the establishment of a ‘materials evaluation centre’ (MEC) as a part of the materials business area. The MEC brought together all physical and chemical tests on leather and synthetic uppers, linings, threads, tapes, solings, heels, top-pieces and adhesives. The new centre permitted close cooperation between the MEC team and members of staff conducting research on new materials or test methods, thus ensuring that test methods and guidelines – as well as technical knowledge on new materials – was as up-to-date as possible. In November of that year, Tokyo-based footwear producer Shamior became the first Japanese shoemaker to join SATRA.

Developing services

Four new research projects – scheduled to last for up to four years – commenced in March 1991. A proportion of the cost of these projects was offset by the UK Government’s Department of Trade and Industry agreeing to contribute £834,500 towards the total cost of £2 million. The four issues being researched were ‘manufacturing workflow systems’, ‘computerised pre-production planning’, ‘computer-based modelling system for individual shoemaking operations’ and ‘computerised preparation and automated planning for leather cutting’. According to Dr Ron Whittaker who was then director of research and services, these four projects represented a major investment of SATRA’s resources into areas which were critical to the success of technically-advanced shoe manufacturing in the 1990s and were expected to be of benefit to member companies.

An aerial view of SATRA House, in Rockingham Road, Kettering, taken in the 1990s

In 1992, SATRA consolidated its status as the leading international technology centre for footwear. More than 80 new companies came into membership, thus increasing the association’s spread to 50 countries. This compared to 60 applications received in 1991 and 55 in the previous year. Half of the new members were footwear manufacturers, with the remainder being component producers and suppliers, retailers, tanners, chemical companies, machinery manufacturers and others. Most of the applications came from the UK and India, followed by Italy, Japan and Germany. Despite the depressed economic climate and a drop in the world supply of footwear, SATRA increased its turnover – the 33rd successive year in which this was achieved.

SATRA staff members spent a total of 1,050 days overseas during 1992, visiting member companies and promoting SATRA at exhibitions. Members from no fewer than 18 countries were welcomed to SATRA’s ‘Materials 2000 Conference’, held at London Heathrow Airport in September of that year. In order to conduct high quality research, a new instrumental analysis centre was opened – a facility that housed chemical analytical equipment.

Dave McKeown (left) and Mark Southam with motorcyclists’ PPE, which SATRA began to test in the mid-nineties

In 1994, SATRA was appointed as an ‘approved body’ for European testing and inspection of footwear and clothing, in line with the new directive on personal protective equipment. A growing interest in SATRA’s personal protective equipment (PPE) testing capabilities led to discussions with companies manufacturing and supplying motorcycle clothing and protective gloves.

It was appropriate that SATRA’s 75th anniversary during that year should be the association’s most successful year to that time. Total turnover reached £4.5 million – an improvement of 7.5 per cent over 1993, and annual turnover grew for the 35th year in succession. Sales of SATRA products and services increased by 20 per cent, and the materials and products evaluation centre handled business worth over £1 million for the first time.

The opening of the ‘Edinburgh Building’ by Prince Philip in 1994 provided SATRA with new test laboratories and improved working conditions. During the year, 80 new companies from 25 countries were welcomed as members – an overall growth of nearly 10 per cent, which brought the total number of members to 1,100 in 55 lands.

Necessary expansion

By 1995, the increasing volume of testing work, particularly in the sports and safety product areas was putting pressure on SATRA House. Fifty years after the association bought the property, it had been developed to the maximum extent possible. Plans were announced for a further expansion of the Rockingham Road headquarters and laboratories to provide additional space for the equipment and sales area and personal protective equipment testing. In addition, the board of directors decided to purchase land and build a 10,000 square foot office, workshop and laboratory complex on an industrial estate some two miles away from the existing facility.

During the year, SATRA was involved in a number of key research projects – investigating the potential for recycling waste materials, reducing the use of solvents in footwear factories, and developing a means of assessing the fitting characteristics of steel toe caps in safety footwear. SATRA’s materials and footwear evaluation centre broke its previous record turnover during 1995. The laboratory assisted a total of 960 member companies by assessing some 20,000 individual materials – including leather, coated fabrics and textiles – as well as shoes and footwear components. A new adhesive preparation and testing laboratory was opened, thus ensuring the most up-to-date facilities for evaluating the latest solvent-free adhesives.

Construction underway on the first phase of SATRA’s new headquarters — first occupied in 1997

North and South America were major markets for SATRA management systems, with installations being carried out in Bolivia, Canada, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and the USA. Asia was also a good market, with new business coming from Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand. SATRA systems continued to be popular in Australia, South Africa and the UK.

Footwear companies make up half of the 77 companies from 30 countries which signed membership application forms during 1995. By then, SATRA had member companies in 60 countries, with Romania being the latest addition to the list of nations where SATRA had members. Members of staff carried out a range of consultancy work – from laboratory accreditation to the installation of management information systems – in many parts of the world. More than 300 SATRA EC type-examination certificates were issued for PPE, enabling a wide range of products to be CE marked.

A three-year project to develop solvent-free surface pre-treatments to improve footwear sole bonds started in December 1995 in conjunction with a number of companies within the footwear industry and Loughborough University. This project was 50 per cent funded by the LINK Surface Engineering Programme which, in turn, was sponsored by the UK Department of Trade and Industry and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

During 1996, SATRA attracted European research funding to develop software systems for the automatic lay planning of leather hides. SATRA products and services were demonstrated at international exhibitions in Asia, India and the USA, and seminars were organised in Japan, Mexico, Portugal and the UK. SATRA also developed a presence on the internet for the first time.

A time for diversification

Since its inception in 1919, SATRA’s activities had been concentrated mainly in the footwear and allied industries. While this was still the case in 1996, the association’s excellent facilities and well-trained personnel enabled it to expand further into the areas of clothing and, particularly, personal protective equipment. As well as safety footwear, SATRA was evaluating a wide range of other PPE, including football shin guards, motorcycle clothing, fall arrest harnesses, high-visibility clothing and hard hats. Development work also began on standards for products as diverse as gum shields, mouth guards, and stab- and bullet-proof vests. By 1996, around half of the work carried out at SATRA’s safety product centre was on the evaluation of protective gloves. Chemical permeation testing of rubber and plastic gloves and clothing increased significantly in 1996.

During 1996, SATRA Quality Assurance Limited was successful in gaining accreditation from the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) – the independent UK body responsible for providing accreditation of test laboratories and certification bodies.

The rate of growth in membership continued to increase, when more than 90 new companies joined during 1996. At the end of the year, SATRA was assisting over 1,200 members in 65 countries.

To mark SATRA’s 50 years being based in Kettering and its contribution to the local community, a clock was presented to the Kettering Museum in January 1997. It is still keeping good time in the building’s shoemaking gallery.

Moving into Wyndham Way

In April 1997, SATRA’s equipment production and sales operation and safety product business area moved into the first phase of the Wyndham Way complex (the location of the current, but now much-expanded UK headquarters). The new building featured the largest accredited flammability chamber for consumer product testing in the UK, in addition to a six-metre drop height test rig for the assessment of fall arrest equipment. SATRA had some interesting neighbours at this new site until they were relocated to their new home – a collection of goats, rheas (large South American flightless birds) and a wild boar, all kept in an adjoining field. More than 100 new member companies joined as members during 1997 – the first time this milestone had been achieved in a calendar year. In June 1997, the SATRA furniture technology centre opened, with a fully equipped testing laboratory located in SATRA House.

Although by 1997 SATRA was being recognised in the clothing, safety product and furniture industries, SATRA’s declared aim was to remain as the foremost research and technology organisation for the worldwide footwear industry. During the year, this sector accounted for over 75 per cent of SATRA’s income. The materials and products evaluation centre increased its activity by 15 per cent, with 35 members of staff being directly involved in this business area’s work.

After one year of service, activity within SATRA’s furniture technology centre had grown steadily, and the level of finished product evaluation work – particularly of chairs – had doubled. For the second consecutive year, SATRA welcomed more than 100 new members – many of which were based in China, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Slovenia, Taiwan, the UK and the USA. Open days were held for potential members to see SATRA’s furniture, clothing and fabric care laboratories.

A highlight of 1998 was the launch of a major training course and qualification for footwear technologists. The SATRA Accredited Footwear Technologist (SAFT) programme was developed in response to a demand from member companies that wanted special tuition for personnel involved in the global resourcing of products. In recognition of the association’s investment in and development of members of staff, SATRA was once again recognised as an ‘Investor in People’ – for the second time. In October 1998, SATRA became United Kingdom Accreditation Service-accredited for toy testing.

The photograph at the top of this page shows HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who visited SATRA in 1994 – in discussion with head of adhesions and solings research Steve Abbott (left), with SATRA chairman Iain Kennedy (second from right) and Dr Ron Whittaker (right), who had become SATRA chief executive three years previously.

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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 40 of the September 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »