Gunn & Moore sets new standard

Making cricket bats is a craft branded with mystique and varnished in sentiment. It has always been a trade carried out by skilled, bare hands, with trade secrets passed down the generations from one craftsman to another in a workshop scattered with willow shavings and saw dust. This tradition has continued to the modern day virtually untouched, even in the globalised, television-obsessed 21st century that has seen international cricketers play a one-day game with $1 million-a-head at stake.

This traditional, organic bat-making process is, however, riddled with inconsistency, inaccuracy and waste, with no two bats every genuinely being the same. To those outside the sport it might be surprising to learn that, in fact, this antiquated process still exists within bat-making factories around the world.

Cricket has been waiting for a bat-maker to modernise and find that delicate balance between efficient manufacturing and ancient craft, to produce the exact bat specifications that today’s cricketers want, when they want it, with reliability, but without losing that hand-finished attention a robot can’t replicate.

Sitting barely out of the shadow of one of cricket’s grand old grounds, Nottingham’s test match venue Trent Bridge, Gunn & Moore has stepped up to the crease and sent bat-making inefficiency into the River Trent. It has taken four years of research and development and investment in excess of £500,000, and Gunn & Moore’s new groundbreaking DXM process has been in full operation since July 2008.

Through a four-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the Building Research Establishment, which was sponsored by the DTi, Gunn & Moore scrutinised every stage of a bat-making process that has evolved at the company since 1892, from sourcing willow, preparing the willow for production, the pressing process and shaping the bats.

The first stage of this process that has been improved enormously is drying out the raw willow clefts. The clefts arrive with a moisture content of around 40%, and the optimum content for a cricket bat is 10-12%. It used to take 12 months of storage to reach that desired content, but Gunn & Moore has found a kiln that will gently warm the clefts to 40 degrees C (any warmer and the willow will become brittle and discoloured), and reduce the drying process to just 17 days.

The most dramatic element of Gunn & Moore’s DXM process has been the installation of a giant five-axis CNC (computer numerical control) router that shapes the pressed clefts into cricket bats in a matter of seconds. Gunn & Moore took its concept to three established software houses before it could find boffins capable of producing a programme to generate computer-aided bat designs that could be delivered to the five-axis machine.

The new system gives Gunn & Moore virtually limitless design freedom – with the greatest of ease – while the five-axis machine perfects the weight distribution of every cricket bat. In turn that will guarantee an exceptional ‘pick-up’ (or feel) to every single Gunn & Moore bat.

Peter Wright, Gunn & Moore managing director, is delighted with the advances his team has made. “By using the perfect blend of tradition and technology, the company has been able to develop even further the art of bat-making developed in Nottingham by a long line of Gunn & Moore master craftsmen for over 120 years.”

Technological advance in manufacturing normally leads to redundancies, but Wright is understandably proud that he has not had to lay off a single employee, and he takes particular pride in the fact that Gunn & Moore has kept the entire manufacturing process on its home pitch: “Although Gunn & Moore could, like its major competitors, have moved production to India or Pakistan, the four years of research pointed to a more long-lasting and cost-effective way of sourcing and converting English willow into cricket bats.”

One of the practical advantages of keeping the factory in the UK is that the willow does not have to be imported, as exhaustive experiments have proved that the only climatic conditions that produce willow with the exact characteristics for cricket bats are, believe it or not, in England.

“We have retained all our knowledge and expertise on cricket bats here in Nottingham,” adds Wright. “We’re not passing that knowledge on to someone else to make the bats for us just because we’ll save 5p a bat.”

We don’t have to simply take Gunn & Moore’s word for the quality of their bats, as during the media launch of the DXM process in January, England and Nottinghamshire all-rounder Stuart Broad dropped into the factory to pick-up his new bats for England’s winter tour of the West Indies. 

“I have used Gunn & Moore bats since I was 15 and I am delighted with them,” Broad, 22, told SGB Sports. “Gunn & Moore are the best bat makers in the world and the bats never let you down. I’ll take four bats on tour, but I’ve used the same match bat for nine months now, so they are pretty durable. The longer each bat lasts the better it gets too.”

The old process of making cricket bats took 13 months per bat, from receiving the willow cleft to the finished bat leaving the factory floor. With the DXM process it takes no more than a month to make the same bat. That means Gunn & Moore can react to market trends and retailers’ needs a lot faster.

“The DXM process will establish us as the number one cricket bat maker in the world,” claims Wright. “It has made us more efficient, getting the bats out quicker to our customers, and also the consistency of the bats is going to be an enormous benefit to our business. Production costs have been reduced but not very significantly, but we didn’t go down this route to save money. The first priority was to improve quality and performance. This process is a long-term investment.”

While accurate retail figures, in terms of comparisons with other manufacturers, are hard to come by in cricket, Gunn & Moore suspects it is currently the market leader in the UK, South Africa and New Zealand, but Wright hopes the introduction of DXM will enable the company to increase its market share by 25% over the next three years.

If they reach this target, Gunn & Moore will comfortably be the most played cricket bat in the world.