The changing face of manufacturing

In the 1970s, Nick Hedges was one of the first portrait photographers to document factory life. SEGRO’s Thames Valley regional director Paul Lewis compares these evocative images with manufacturing today.

By Paul Lewis | Photography by Nick Hedges

Changing face of manufacturing
Maintenance engineers in the finishing shop, Bilston rolling mills, (1977)

With their grubby boiler suits and hand-operated machinery, Nick Hedges’ subjects conjure up a world that seems to have disappeared. But has it?

“Certainly, the type of work has evolved,” says Paul Lewis. “Traditional manufacturing is in decline, from representing almost half of the UK economy immediately after WW2, to 30% in 1970 and 11% today. So these days, much of the activity in industrial buildings is very different to the experiences that Hedges captured.” 

Instead of the lock factories and steelworks of half a century ago, “we’ve seen the arrival of urban logistics and last-mile delivery businesses, research and development, and high-tech engineering and digital industries, like data storage,” Lewis explains. 

While the workers in Hedges’ pictures could not have foreseen the emergence of such sectors, the photographer recalls that “there was a threat in the air from the automated and computer-driven work that was on the horizon.” 

Their worries were prescient – nowadays, the threat of change comes from Artificial Intelligence. Businesses and society must prepare for this shift, warns Lewis. “If a proportion of industrial roles cease to exist, access to retraining will be increasingly important.”

The factory work of half a century ago could be gruelling. Since then, health and safety standards have much improved, along with the importance of “employee engagement and wellbeing, which includes the quality of environment and access to amenities”, Lewis points out. 

But despite – or perhaps because of - the punishing nature of the work, Hedges was overwhelmed by the sense of a shared endeavour that he found on his visits. “The business of being at work contributed enormously to the sense of friendship, and the collective sense of identity. That was to do with people working together for a long time, perhaps 20 or 30 years.” 

In contrast, the average tenure in an industrial role is now just five years, and the workforce is heavily contracted. “Staff retention and recruitment is a challenge for employers, so having access to a large well-trained labour pool is vital,” says Lewis 

While retention may be an issue in some big corporations, “on the flip side, a lot of smaller companies – particularly those engaged in developing new technologies - have a great shared sense of endeavour,” he adds. Which suggests that not everything has changed since Hedges took these shots.

You may also like

Factories as art

In the line of beauty.

Alastair Philip Wiper, the Copenhagen-based photographer, loves, lives and breathes manufacturing.
OXO Tower by Lukas Novotny

Making An Impact: London’s Factory Buildings.

What makes a great cityscape? Glorious factories, according to Lukas Novotny.
Map Design

Magicking Ideas into Manufactured Goods.

A London design firm has perfected the art of bringing start-ups’ concepts to market.
China crafts

From mountainside to mass production.

Upscaling China’s age-old crafts for a wider audience.