Story: Manufacturing – an overview

Savvy design puts some New Zealand manufacturers’ products in a class of their own. Goods manufactured for export range from yachts to designer clothing to global positioning systems. Food tops the list of manufactured items, including dairy produce, beer and chocolates – one smart manufacturer exports steamed puddings to the UK.

Story by Ian Hunter
Main image: Worker at electronics company Rakon

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Early manufacturing

Māori made their clothes, houses, fishing nets and everything else they needed from the plants, shells and stone they found around them.

In the 1830s and 1840s Europeans processed whale oil on the seashore for export. Early European settlers wanted the same manufactured goods they had had back home, such as clothes, food and crockery. Things that were easy and cheap to make were manufactured in New Zealand, for example beer, bread, clothes and sweets. But other goods had to be imported.

Because there were few roads and towns were isolated, goods were manufactured locally, including building materials such as timber and bricks.

To encourage manufacturing the government offered rewards for manufacturing new products like sugar and paper. In the 1870s money was invested in roads and railways, and factories making building materials and engineering goods flourished.

Manufacturing, 1880s and 1890s

Between 1881 and 1891 the number of factories grew by more than a half. Goods were manufactured to suit local markets, for example Henry Shacklock made a stove which burnt local coal.

By 1900 New Zealand’s manufacturing output was worth £17 million (over $2.7 billion in 2009 terms). Most factories were small or medium-sized, with 13 staff on average, but there were some big firms – Hallensteins in Dunedin had 400 staff.

Early 20th century manufacturing

The range of manufactured goods expanded in the 20th century – there were cars and bikes, electric lighting, radios, sewing machines and ready-made clothes.

During the First World War it was difficult to import goods and many things began to be made locally.

In the 1920s motor transport became more common. Manufacturers of goods began to merge with other companies or take them over. Breweries got larger and there were fewer of them.

Overseas companies began making products in New Zealand, for example Cadbury chocolate was made in Dunedin, and General Motors and Ford assembled cars in Wellington.

Protection, mid-20th century

In the 1930s export prices fell. Less money was available and the government began to restrict imports. Factories were set up to make goods locally. After the Second World War the government wanted to protect New Zealand manufacturing, so it continued to restrict imports. More and more was made locally. People paid high prices for things which could have been imported cheaply, such as cars.

1970s and 1980s

When the price of oil rose in the 1970s it pushed up the price of everything else. The government began a series of ‘Think Big’ projects, including expanding New Zealand’s oil refinery, and steel and aluminium plants. Large plants to make methanol, synthetic fuels and ammonia-urea were built with the aid of government money.

New Zealand and Australia began to relax controls on imports, and in 1983 they signed a closer economic relations agreement (CER).

From the mid-1980s the government abandoned the regulation of imports. Over the next 10 years many manufacturers stopped making goods locally or closed. A deep recession between 1987 and 1991 made manufacturing even harder. Some regions were very hard hit.

Manufacturing, early 2000s

Manufacturers had to adapt to overseas competition by making things better or more cheaply. Companies that process forestry and farm products have flourished in export markets, but most locally manufactured goods are sold in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Ian Hunter, 'Manufacturing – an overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/manufacturing-an-overview (accessed 22 July 2018)

Story by Ian Hunter, published 11 Mar 2010