The arrival of the Internet and all its associated software has got us used to the introduction of products that do not work properly and get corrected by a flurry of subsequent repairs and updates. Hard to imagine in the world of products. “Here is your hand bag, we will send the straps along a bit later”.

Yet getting a perfect product to market has always been a problem, especially with advancing technology such as with aeroplane engines where what we now call service dominant logic leads companies to buy air miles from engines makers rather than the engines themselves.

With a natural material like hides and skins the problems are different. In leather making a great sample is one thing, but getting it into bulk is quite another. Back in the 1990s we called it “HYPE it and then PIPE it”: a major launch of a new leather with a lot of fanfare would promptly have to be slowed for Post Introduction Product Engineering. That is to say getting it right in volume.

The 20th century brought us the leather chemical industry. Before chrome tanning, synthetic dyestuffs and syntans we did not have such an industry at all. As the nationally funded research associations closed the move of technology away from the tanneries to the chemical companies became complete.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, although tanners must know where their innovation will arise. Leather making has always been a complex network with many partnerships. A few years ago one of my industry colleagues told me that he thought the chemical companies owned 95% of the technology his tannery used. Working in the automotive sector he saw his skills as being those of getting the development work successfully into bulk production and maintaining that bulk production rigorously to a standard.

In the leather industry this is vital. Making great leathers and making those great leathers the same day after day are two quite different things. Tanners are not working with inter-changeable parts that just need accurate assembly, nor with zeros and ones that just need to be combined in a logical way with lots of complex logarithms.

We work with a raw material where every piece is unique, where different parts of the natural hide or skin react differently to physical and chemical treatment. We can make it more uniform by making it stiff and painted like plastic, but with high hide prices our customers are now seeing better value in the plastic instead. Never before have we needed to understand so clearly all the skills required for making great leather. And among those skills sits the vital importance of the many partnerships from the farmer through the chemical and machinery companies that are involved in making leather such a treasured material for the consumer. 

Mike Redwood

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