At the cutting edge... - Veterinary Practice
Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now



At the cutting edge…

Veterinary Practice hears the remarkable story of a world-class manufacturer of surgical blades.

HOW about this for a job specification: 10 weeks holiday a year, a 35-hour week, double time for overtime, profit-related pay, private health care and a contributory pension scheme? Sound too good to be true? It may well do, but it’s the standard specification for jobs at one of the world’s leading manufacturers of surgical blades.

Based in Sheffield, Swann-Morton is a name well-known in the veterinary profession, which it has been supplying since the mid 1960s, although the profession accounts for only 5-6% of its business.

The company was founded in 1932 by three people with strong socialist convictions – Walter Swann, an engineer by trade, Alfred Morton, a metallurgist, and Doris Fairweather, a fitter – who laid down principles (see Figure 1) by which the business would be run and which are still the guiding influence.

Their aim was to ensure that the workers were fairly treated and properly rewarded for a fair day’s work, and all employees, including the directors, have a stake in the business, with 50% of the firm’s shares in trust for the workforce and 50% in a charitable trust.

The current multi-million pound enterprise started with capital of just £150 and was set up to make and sell razor blades. In 1935, already soundly based, the company was approached by a surgical house to make replaceable blades for scalpels, using a patented design of handle. Although that American-designed handle didn’t prove popular, Swann-Morton used the experience gained to develop its own tools and make its own brand of scalpels and handles.

In 1938, land was acquired and the first stage of the present factory at Owlerton Green in Sheffield was built; four workshops were completed just as the Second World War started and surgical knives were needed in ever greater quantities.

After the war, development of the site continued with the erection of an administration and office block. In the

1950s, production of razor blades was run down and Swann-Morton concentrated on surgical blades. By 1957, the firm was producing 38 million blades a year and using 140 tons of Sheffield-made strip steel.

During the 1960s the demand for sterilised blades increased. The firm had been a prime mover in the use of vapour phase inhibitor (VPI), with paper inserted into foil to keep blades clean, dry and non-rusting, but saw the need for an irradiation plant on site and in 1964 a batch cobalt plant, the first of its kind in the world, was erected, giving the firm self-sufficiency in product sterilisation.

In the late 1980s a state-of-the-art irradiation centre, complete with a microbiology lab, was opened and Swann-Morton makes these facilities available to other manufacturers.

Production has continued to rise and nowadays the company makes around 1.5 million blades a day (each of which has two visual inspections before being approved for packaging), and uses some 600 tons of special steel a year (still sourced in the UK but sadly no longer available locally in Sheffield).

Long-term staff

Nearly 320 people are employed, with more than 60 having been there for at least 25 years and several for more than 40 years – some joining straight from school or university. Training is an important part of the firm’s ethos: there is an engineering apprenticeship scheme and staff are encouraged to undertake formal studies even at degree level when mutually beneficial.

The company has its own machine shop and is continually investing in new equipment to ensure it remains at “the cutting edge” of the development and production of its products. The directors are proud that customers refer to its products as “the Rolls Royce of surgical blades”.

“We have experienced massive expansion in the last 10 years,” says the managing director, Richard Whiteley. “We have an extremely diverse range of products – more than 60 surgical blades and well over 20 different handles – and although the hospital sector in the UK is very important to us, we are active in many other markets.”

In fact, almost two thirds of production is exported. The company is very strong throughout Europe, the USA, Japan and the Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand but there are very few countries where SwannMorton products are not available, according to the sales and marketing director, Chris Taylor.

The products range from disposable scalpels in various shapes, some with retractable blades, to myringotomy blades, postmortem knives, stitch cutters, biopsy blades and blade removers, and the handles to go with them.

For veterinary use, there are products for large animals (for skin incisions and soft tissue surgery) and small (for orthopaedics, general endoscopy, soft tissue, neurosurgery, hip and elbow dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament injuries, meniscectomy, bone fractures and muscle diseases as well as for use in dental procedures, chiropody and podiatry) and for specialist applications such as pathology and vaginal surgery in horses.

The company is always willing to consider new ideas for both handles and blades, providing there will be an adequate market for them.

One thing the directors make very clear is that the firm will remain true to its founding principles. Alfred Morton left the business in the late 1940s; Walter Swann died in 1980 and Doris Fairweather in 1984, but the arrangements they set in place have enabled the firm to go from strength to strength.

Despite the world being very different and the plethora of standards, rules and regulations that now have to be observed, the legacy of the founders is, in the company’s own words, “a continuing example to others of what can be achieved through applying genuine moral principles in an otherwise harsh and cynical world”.

Have you heard about our
IVP Membership?

A wide range of veterinary CPD and resources by leading veterinary professionals.

Stress-free CPD tracking and certification, you’ll wonder how you coped without it.

Discover more