A Staffordshire ceramics company established at the height of the Napoleonic Wars is approaching its 200th anniversary with a new spring in its step.
Wade Ceramics, which was founded in 1810, has invested in state-of-the-art robotic machinery that will allow it to meet the future requirements of existing clients in the whisky industry and compete more effectively with rival firms in the Far East.
Managing director Paul Farmer says that as a result earlier fears that redundancies would need to be made from among his 170 employ-ees have been allayed for the foreseeable future.
The firm's development plans have been aided by a £684,000 Selective Finance for Investment (SFIE) grant from regional development agency Advantage West Midlands. The money has gone towards the £6 million investment being made by Wade in new machinery and a new site.
"The investment has safeguarded the jobs of the workforce and the future of manufacturing here," said Mr Farmer, who led an MBO of the company in 1999.
"We have lost 600 jobs here over the last ten years, mainly due to competition from over-seas. Now I do not see any more redundancies for the foreseeable future. We could even be looking to take on some more people next year."
Before Mr Farmer and Edward Duke bought the firm, it was losing £200,000 per week, but now the company has been profitable for the last three years.
Wade's main area of business is manufacturing porcelain flagons for the spirits industry, especially malt and deluxe whisky producers.
Demand is such that new robotic equipment was essential to streamline the production process. Wade worked with SAMA - a German ceramics machines specialist - to develop a bespoke machine to produce porcelain whisky flagons.
The SAMA machine manufactures sets of flagons, while 'Big Ed', the largest robot in the system, takes the cast flagons out of the moulds and delivers them on to bats for the drying process. Fettling robots then drill and machine the flagon's top before it is placed on a conveyor ready for firing in the kiln.
The machinery has helped to reduce the traditional casting cycle from two and a half hours to four minutes, while the high pressure casting technology enables one flagon to be made every 15 seconds.
Its new equipment has helped Wade to secure a five-year contract with Chivas Regal to supply 90 per cent of the drinks company's demand for ceramic decanters.
The company has produced two million this year and expects this order to grow.
Mr Farmer said that meeting contractual obligations requires increased productivity and the ability to manufacture products to much tighter tolerances than was possible on existing machines.
"We have installed a high-pressure casting machine which is far superior to the existing machinery. We have been developing this technology for 18 months," he said.
"The new equipment is less labour intensive and more fuel efficient. The whole project is based on the new factory and having the most up-to-date equipment for ceramic holloware.
"The grant for this project will help us to meet the growth requirements of the whisky industry, which is growing by 16 per cent a year. And we can now compete cost wise with manufacturers in the Far East."
Meanwhile, Wades is also planning to move from its existing building - the Royal Victoria Pottery in Westport Road, Burslem - to purpose-built premises at Festival Park in Hanley next year.
At 35,000 sq ft, Wade Ceramics' new building in Festival Park will be smaller than its current premises - although it will be one level instead of the current five.
Richard Clift, from the Access to Finance team at Advantage West Midlands, said: "Wade Ceramics had very specific requirements to aid its future prosperity and we were delighted to step in and provide an SFIE grant.
"One of our key priorities at Advantage West Midlands is to make sure such companies have access to appropriate finance for growth and SFIE funding can provide support towards capital expenditure that leads to long-term improvements in productivity."