THE iconic Henry vacuum cleaner – and its sister machines – are used and loved in countless places all around our planet.

Famous for their high performance, reliability and durability, the success of the distinctive products ensures their Chard manufacturing site remains a massive source of pride for the town and the people who work there.

Chief Reporter DANIEL MILLIGAN took a tour of Numatic International, and checked out an environmentally-friendly addition to the site while he was there.

HIDDEN away at the end of Millfield Industrial Park in Chard is the last remaining volume manufacturer of vacuum cleaners in the UK.

More than 5,000 machines leave Numatic every day, including domestic vacuum cleaners and industrial cleaning machines for airports, hospitals, schools and large shopping malls.

The 750-strong workforce prides itself on supplying customers worldwide within three weeks of orders being placed but to do so Numatic has to be flexible, often hiring an additional 130 agency workers when orders peak.

Since the firm’s founder, Christopher Duncan, launched the business in 1969 in Crewkerne it has kept expanding and now exports 45% of its products.

Employment resource officer Paul Stevenson worked on the Henry line for 12 years and has been at Numatic 22 years.

He said: “I have seen a lot of changes and the business expanding a lot – it just keeps growing and growing.”

Mr Stevenson showed how all the components of Numatic’s products are manufactured individually before a mixture of robotic machinery and manpower puts them all together. Final quality control checks are made and the machines are placed on one of scores of trucks that leave the site every day.

One of the men in charge of ensuring Numatic’s products are perfect is Steve Towes, from Yeovil, who has worked as a product auditor for 14 years. He said some of the completed products are taken apart and every component checked to make sure what is leaving the factory is of the highest quality.

Property and energy manager Andrew Smith explained where the Henry name came from. He said: “Our early machines were simple, pleasing shapes. In the early years, when Numatic commenced its manufacture, armies of Mrs Mops worked day and night during anti-social hours. The character idea was designed to put a smile on the face of the users when really they had little else to smile about.

“After producing a few thousand machines exhibiting the now well known face design our many, many professional users all found this a pleasing innovation.

“At this point the product didn’t have its own name. At one particular exhibition in Portugal a lot of our customers remarked on these character vacuum cleaners and asked for its name.

“Being a British company, selling extensively in foreign markets, it was decided to give it a British name and Henry was chosen in the initial instance.

“As the years passed by, and the product developed, Numatic decided to make the shape of the Henry cleaner that of a classic English gent with a bowler hat in place of the previous, less distinctive shape.

Some 3,500 Henry vacuum cleaners are built every day, taking not much more than ten minutes a machine. Plastic granules are melted in injection moulding machines and formed into the parts that make the vacuum cleaner – and this goes on 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

The firm created its first commercial vacuum cleaner design for cleaning coal, oil and gas-fired boilers from its small factory in Crewkerne in the early 1970s. At the time, the company employed just six people but over the years it has developed and moved to Yeovil in 1971, Beaminster in 1974 and its current Chard location in 1990.

In 1994, subsidiary companies near Paris and Johannesburg were established and bases in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland were added in 2002, 2004 and 2009.

Despite the overseas expansion of sales outlets, Numatic remains one of the key employers in Chard with all the worldwide production maintained in the UK.

In June last year, founder and managing director Mr Duncan was awarded an MBE for services to international business by The Princess Royal, Princess Anne, at an investiture in Windsor Castle.

The firm also has 1,000 solar panels on three of its roofs – SunGift Solar installed them last year. Mr Smith said the company is in a plastics industry Climate Change Agreement, which sets demanding targets for improvements in energy efficiency. He said the panels will meet 3-4% of the total electricity bill as the firm spends about £100,000 a month keeping its machines going.

In the second half of this year, it is launching another series of vacuum cleaners which will save 50% energy and improve performance by 20%. Mr Smith said: “This is a major move forward and a truly meaningful contribution towards energy conservation.”