In its early days the SATRA name stood for the Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association in the UK. It has since metamorphosed into a multi-million-pound international organisation which offers wide-ranging services — including developing and supplying testing equipment, training and chemical analysis of a diverse number of products varying from its core business of footwear and leather, through toys and portable bedpans to horse bedding (one and a half tons of it) and furniture. Shelagh Davy visited its two sites in Kettering, Northamptonshire

You need an impressive array of testing equipment if you are to maintain your role as one of the world’s foremost testing and research centres, and to stay ahead of the game, SATRA developed its own.

Any equipment bought in was likely to be tweaked somewhat, but on the whole SATRA constructed its own test apparatus and it was only logical for the centre to go into manufacturing on a commercial scale. To do this it has created its own purpose-built factory on a new industrial site on the edge of Kettering.

Staff still occupy SATRA’s traditional headquarters in Rockingham Road where its core business of footwear analysis is still carried out, but as the new site continues to be developed more departments have moved over. The most recent phase, the third, was opened by Lord Sainsbury in the autumn of 2004. This houses new offices and a large state-of-the-art and very impressive chemical analysis laboratory.

Tenants have been brought in to Rockingham Road to occupy the vacated spaces and the site has been designated as the SATRA Innovation Park since the newcomers are all working in scientific or analytical fields.

At the new site the second phase houses all printing and publication work. This is another example of how SATRA acquires the skills needed to operate its own business and then commercialise them. It not only publishes three of its own magazines, along with annual reports and a great many brochures , manuals, forecasts etc, but also takes on outside work as well.

A sound basis

The SATRA organisation is built on very firm foundations and continues to grow at a steady rate; all the investment in the new industrial park has come from its own funds. Simply put, it waits until it has the money in place before they build the next phase. There is only one more to go before the new complex is complete and SATRA expects it to be up and running in around three years’ time.

In the meantime it is business as usual, without disruption. And usual business means 200 scientists, technologists and support staff serving 1,500 members in more than 70 countries. SATRA says its aim is to increase the profitability of its members by giving them exclusive access to research, products and services for improving quality and performance; reducing production costs; evaluating materials and products; increasing worldwide sales.

Steady growth means more than just resting on your laurels and SATRA is quick to spot new opportunities. It is just a short step from testing furniture with leather upholstery to assessing a whole range of furniture and this particular sector is keeping SATRA furniture specialists very busy.

Artificial backsides bounce regularly onto long-suffering chairs, sofas and mattresses, packing the punch of a 14-stone man. Eight weeks of continuous bouncing simulates five years of normal wear, dirt included, and customers seem to prefer this method to a much quicker test which is also available.

Furniture tested at SATRA can receive the SATRA Diamond Award. This a product approval programme available to members applicable to all furniture and covers both components and finished articles. Success can bring international recognition and prestige.

More recently, SATRA announced that it was developing its automotive testing business with the appointment of dedicated technologists to examine automotive upholstery for its durability, lightfastness and colour fastness. The centre’s automotive portfolio now includes some of the biggest names in the business, such as Ford, General Motors, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Volvo.

Advances in testing

On the traditional footwear front, the days when shoes were field tested by postmen and others offering tough working conditions are long gone. Now a flexible foot which artificially mimics the motions of walking can test footwear in wet or dry conditions. There are also chambers for subjecting products to extremes of heat, cold and humidity.

Another of SATRA’s’ fields of expertise is in helping companies to set up their own laboratories and create their own in-house testing facilities. This ties in very neatly with its commitment to Timberland to ensure that tanneries worldwide which serve the Timberland brand have laboratory facilities to enable them to assess leathers against a set of stringent physical and chemical requirements.

This follows on from Timberland’s earlier collaboration with SATRA in training supply companies to use the unique SATRA five-point leather grading system. Stage one of the new initiative concentrated on the tanneries, but accreditation of test laboratories in shoe factories will follow during the first half of 2005 before, in stage three, suppliers of non-leather materials will be included. The premise is that if suppliers and manufacturers are all operating on the same principles of quality and cutting yield there will be greater understanding and less strife in the production chain, making life much easier for Timberland in the future.

Despite its huge success, SATRA never allows itself to become complacent. It recognised early on that the manufacture of its test equipment would soon come under attack from copyists. Instead of bemoaning the situation it continued to develop ever more innovative machinery and also went ahead and concentrated on another stream of revenue: training.

For example, ‘Making the best use of leather’ is a two-day course aimed at all personnel in the leather and leather products industries. It covers many aspects: types of leather; the tanning process; surface finishes and treatments; environmental aspects; testing chemical and physical properties; colour matching; quality grading; economical cutting; manufacturing processes and their effects; product performance and care; and last but definitely not least, consumer complaints.

For the greater good

One of SATRA’s founding concepts was that by pooling resources, manufacturers collectively could have access to a central facility, always available, that was far more extensive than any one of them could afford (or justify) on their own. This concept is even more valid today to deal with ever more stringent EU regulations, global trading and greater diversification of products.

Testing covers chemical analysis, physical performance, structural strength, ergonomics, flammability, thermal insulation and much more. There are six fully conditioned laboratories and four test chambers (one of which can get down to -40°C). There are 20ft (6m) high towers for impact testing and three flammability rooms that are large enough to hold a three-piece suite. SATRA also has a full-scale dry cleaning and laundering plant and its own fully-equipped engineering workshop. All in all, this is a very impressive organisation.