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BIG INTERVIEW - Joel Bright

Stuart Jordan

STUART JORDAN talks to Joel Bright, Managing Director of Dapol.

Stuart Jordan: What changes have you seen in the Model Railway industry in the time you have been working in it?

Joel Bright: I am a relative newcomer to model railways being the MD of Dapol for the past 5 years only, but even in this time I have seen significant changes. Detail and the specification of features have now gone to new levels. When I see some photographs of models it is difficult sometimes to see what the gauge is. I personally think this is testament to healthy competition, with all concerned companies striving to produce the best they can in order to gain a commercial and reputational advantage. Supply chain and remote manufacturing has also been more challenging in the last 5 years. Developments in the Far East has meant all companies operating out there have faced supply problems as internal demand in China and voracious demand for Chinese produced goods has exploded. Couple this with exchange rate fluctuations means that as MD of Dapol, I am thankful we still do some of our manufacturing in the UK and moreover, am keen to develop this further. Our recent repatriation of our OO and N gauge container production is testament to this and I hope to further expand our `Made in the UK’ portfolio in the coming years.

SJ: How have product research and development methods changed?

JB: Technology has undoubtedly aided the R&D effort considerably. The internet as a source of almost limitless information is now on tap and anyone can search and find information on almost anything which would have taken weeks by the traditional means. The development of laser scanning has also been a useful application in the development toolbox. What would have taken hours of laborious measuring, prone to human mistake and omission can now be done more accurately and in a fraction of the time by laser scanning. What should also not be understated is the increased popularity of heritage rail and other enthusiast groups. These groups have not only painstakingly restored many railway items to enable companies like Dapol to model them more readily, but have also unearthed vital original information, drawings etc. which are so valuable in the development process.

Dapol N Scale Terrier

Dapol's diminutive but detailed N Scale Terrier, not actual size!

SJ: What processes lead to Dapol deciding to produce a specific model? What are the pros and cons of pursuing an exclusive licence, like with the Class 68 Locomotive, over producing an ‘old favourite’ like the Terrier?

JB: A mixture of things is the answer. The first thing is to have a team of extremely capable people involved in the process, who live and breathe railways and know the market well. We then listen to the requests from our customers and marry these with our own personal inclinations on what we think will make a successful model. This will take account of parameters such as has this model been manufactured before, if so was it any good? How many of the prototypes were manufactured and what was the geographic spread etc. The process is augmented by a commercial discussion which looks at the number of models that can be made, the availability of prototype information, liveries possible, costs of tooling and production and a forecast of sales revenues. In general, science takes over and we generally focus on which can yield the best returns.

With regard to product licensing, there are many advantages. You tend to be offered exclusivity on the design, which removes a huge commercial risk of possible model duplication. You tend to have good access to product information and to the prototype itself. With the Class 68 for example, thanks to DRS, we laser scanned a brand new Class 68 in perfect conditions, we recorded the sound from a Class 68, both running light and under load and had copies of the original livery sheets of the locomotives from the designers who produced the prototype vinyl graphics. The downsides are of course, in general you have to pay a royalty and you have to get key stage approval from the licensor.

Dapol O Scale 08 Shunter

CAD image of the forthcoming O Scale 08 Shunter.

SJ: Were you surprised by the popularity of the initial release of the O Scale Terrier locomotive? With the 08 Diesel Shunter in production, are there plans to release more locomotives - even a tender loco?

JB: The simple answer is no, we were not that surprised. We researched the market well and felt there was a high latent demand for O gauge models with the greater detail, presence and heft they have, but purchasing was deterred by the high prices generally available. We felt that if we committed ourselves to reasonable production quantities which allows a more affordable retail price then we could encourage this demand. Our trade partners are also to be applauded for their assistance in this. By promoting the model and by giving us vital pre-order feedback, we could see the strategy working, this of course on the proviso we supplied a model to match the expectations. As the model developed, was tweaked and improved we increasingly felt more confident that we were going to meet these expectations. I must admit however, as the launch date was looming, we were all nervous but thankfully, all went to plan.

SJ: It must be hard to draw a line between what should be a standard release and what should be a retailer commission – the GM Pullman 73s being a prime example – how do you make those sorts of calls?

JB: It is quite simple really. When we start developing a model, we generally have the first batch of variants determined and a have a good idea on the second batch as well. If we are approached with a request and the model does not fall into the list of either then we are usually amenable, after all it usually represents extra sales.

Gaugemaster Pullman Class 73

Gaugemaster/Dapol Limited Edition Class 73 in Pullman Livery.

SJ: Managing expectation when it comes to a new model is incredibly hard with online forums awash with consumer opinion on what is right and what is wrong. Is a thick skin essential if you want to be a model railway manufacturer these days?

JB: No I think a thick skin is the last thing you need, I think you need to be receptive and rational. Dapol is made up of normal human beings who may be passionate about model railways but are still human and as such will make mistakes. Having our errors pointed out in a factual and constructive way is a valuable source of information and gives us a way to improve our offerings and our products in the future and should be encouraged. What is irritating though, are comments made by apparent experts who offer no fact or evidence for their stance but merely opinion. This however, is a small price to pay for the valuable comments, reviews and suggestions we have had over the years.

SJ: What other new items, across OO, N and O Scales, are in the pipeline?

JB: We are adopting a new approach at Dapol and are not making one-off product announcements at a set time of the year. Our new strategy is to only announce new models once a substantial amount of the R&D has been performed and we have something tangible to show. As well as the back log of old announcements we are still busy with, new models in all three gauges are planned, however, these will only be announced when we have something tangible to show, sorry.

SJ: Which of your recent releases are you most proud of?

JB: I think the O gauge Terrier. I think as well as being a terrific model, it has given a boost to the O gauge market and has encouraged a lot of modellers to have a go at O. We are hoping to build on this and have some exciting products planned.

SJ: What does the future hold for Dapol?

JB: Undoubtedly, the current economic climate is difficult and steering a course though this and securing employment for the people at Dapol must be our key goal. A vital part of this I think is building on our manufacturing base here at our Chirk site. We have some ambitious plans for the future which should give us more control over our products and allow us to be more adaptable to the uncertain worldwide economic environment. Through this investment, I see Dapol growing in all three of the main gauges and to continue to strive to develop new and exciting products with innovative new features. It is our aim to make Dapol the leading name in UK model railways.

SJ: Thank you for your time Joel.

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