What’s next for trade fabrication in 2024?

With autumn’s casualties in the fabrication sector we ask what’s ahead for trade fabricators and their customers?

Is it going to get worse before it gets better? Going into the end of this year that’s a question on the lips of fabricators up and down the country.

High labour costs, high energy costs and a lacklustre market in the face of falling but still stubbornly high inflation, have brought a hefty dose of realism to window and door supply, whichever tier of it you’re in.

“For the industry as a whole, it hasn’t been a terrible year, but it hasn’t been an easy one,” says Ryan Johnson, group managing director, Emplas. “We’re operating in a market that’s tough. If you look at the fabricator numbers, they’ve been dropping year on year.

“It certainly becomes very much harder, if you’re operating at a lower level of volume, to remain competitive in terms of buying prices and economies of scale.

“Not only that, you’ve got energy costs that aren’t going away, there’s lots of additional administrative costs and health and safety costs that perhaps didn’t exist five or ten years ago.

“Getting good staff is tough,” he continues. “To do that, you need to invest in your people in terms of training and facilities, so there’s additional costs there.

“For fabricators, the cost base has gone up and you’ve got customers who don’t want to necessarily pay more for product, and so, in effect, you’re getting squeezed and I don’t see that stopping. It’s only going to continue.”

This is backed up by the latest figures from Insight Data which show a 23% drop in the number of fabricators from 1,534 in 2014, to 1,177 in 2023. Insight data also records a corresponding but softer fall of 6% in installer numbers over the same period from 12,609 in 2014 to 11,840 in 2023.

What’s notable is that while 22% of installers had changed suppliers in the last year, 78% had remained loyal to their existing supply chain (Insight Data).

“Trust me, I’m the last person to question the loyalty of installers to their suppliers,” continues Ryan. “Ultimately it’s what we want as fabricators.

“The thing that you need to be perhaps a little wary of as an installer is that loyalty being misplaced because either you aren’t getting the right service levels, or because the long-term future of your supplier is suddenly thrown into doubt as we saw with the UK Window Group in the autumn.

“None of those areas that I’ve spoken about there are going to get any easier. The bigger fabricators are probably better placed to cope, the more robust, long-standing ones,” he continues.

“The smaller guys with owners that are perhaps coming towards the end of their working career, they’re the guys that are going to struggle and perhaps get swallowed up.

“That will impact installers.”

Emplas continued its multi-million-pound investment programme with an additional 25,000ft2 of space at its Wellingborough manufacturing hub at the start of the autumn.

Part of its infrastructure investment strategy, the purpose-built manufacturing facility will house the fabricator’s expanding composite door offer, new product lines, offices and additional warehousing.

The release of space within its pre-existing 57,000sq ft facility, also triggers a second strand to Emplas’ strategy, including changes to its manufacturing lines to accommodate new machinery and to further optimise production.

As part of its continuous improvement strategy, Emplas has also recently launched dedicated two-hour delivery slots, real-time delivery tracking and 30-minute ‘push notifications’ ahead of arrival on deliveries. This allows customers to plan their day more effectively, freeing up resource.

Ryan continues: “Coming out of lockdown, we didn’t change our philosophy, we continued to invest in high end machinery, in improving our capacity and our quality.

“Our philosophy hasn’t changed. We’re investment led. We continue to be so not just in IT but in our infrastructure and our people. And that gives us a really good platform to continue to grow and do so sustainably.”

This focus on sustainable growth for the Emplas Group MD is key. He argues with significant volume coming onto the market in the wake of UKWG’s demise – 15,000 frames each week according to its website – some fabricators may have bitten off more than they can chew.

“There’s been a bit of a feeding frenzy. And we’ve been part of it,” continues Ryan. “The difference is that we have a long-term growth plan and have been building capacity and continuously investing in our infrastructure.

“We’re not alone in investing but there are many fabricators who haven’t and aren’t and they are going to be exposed in the months ahead with a direct impact on service and quality to installers.”