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Did you know? Meccano is French

Industrial zone on the outskirts of Calais is home to one of the great historic names in the toy business

2 April 2011

AN ANONYMOUS industrial zone on the outskirts of Calais is home to one of the great historic names in the toy business.

Meccano may have been started in the UK more than a century ago, but today it is France that keeps the brand alive. The Calais factory punches out a million kits a year,
plastic now as well as metal, but all instantly recognisable with their struts and bolts and evenly spaced holes.

Up until recently, the Calais plant seemed set on a path of inexorable decline, and owners Alain and Michael Ingberg had invested heavily in Chinese production-lines. The same old story was being played out, it appeared, as China outpriced yet another lumbering European manufacturer.

But then the Ingbergs decided on an abrupt change of policy. China, they declared, was no longer the promised land of cheap labour and endlessly compliant sub-contractors.

The tables were turning, and France was once again the place to be. They have now shifted 20 per cent of Chinese production to Calais, and will bring back more if the experiment works.

Eventually they want a 50-50 balance, with China solely devoted to the US market.

"There were a lot of reasons for the move," says Michael Ingberg. "On the one hand, the Calais factory has a set of fixed costs, so the more we produce here, the more we offset our outgoings. But, more importantly, things are changing in China. Wages are going up, the exchange rate is moving, shipping costs are ever higher."

Meccano’s decision to repatriate production was helped by a big loan of €2.2m from France’s Strategic Investment Fund. It meant they could invest in automated machinery,
thus shedding jobs.

From its early days, Meccano had close links with France, and when the company went bust in the UK in the early 1960s, France kept the flame alive.

The word "Meccano" even entered the French language to mean an elaborate construction of any kind: when President Sarkozy reshuffles his cabinet, he is engaging in "un Meccano politicien".

But even though the company is undoubtedly French, the English have left a legacy: the Calais factory makes parts today that have exactly the same dimensions as their equivalents of 100 years ago.

The measurements are calibrated under the imperial system - fractions of inches - and have never been changed.

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