A famous family-owned Cumbrian paper firm has its eyes on a hi-tech future making parts for the aerospace and automotive industries.

James Cropper PLC last week unveiled a new production line at its historic Cumbrian mill which doubles in an instant the firm’s capacity to manufacture non-woven carbon fibre for the aviation, motoring and defence sectors.

It’s a landmark investment from a company celebrating its 170th birthday and which has seen off two world wars and multiple economic downturns to be the last independently-owned paper mill in the whole of the UK.

And, remarkably, it means that the firm’s home in the quiet village of Burneside, north of Kendal, is now a powerhouse for worldwide cutting edge manufacturing technology employing 520 people.

As chairman and Burneside resident Mark Cropper (the sixth generation Cropper to run the firm) puts it: “We make the most diverse and technically advanced products in the world.”

The new production line is the latest bold initiative by the firm’s Technical Fibre Products (TFP) division, set up 30 years ago to branch out from Cropper’s traditional paper-making activities.

Significantly, revenues from TFP now make up half of Cropper’s annual profits – proof that manufacturing for export in Cumbria can have a bright future.

The parts are made in a similar way to paper in a method which mixes fibre with water and then dries it. Non-woven fibre is considerably lighter and smoother than woven carbon fibre.

Now TFP is about to win the highest accreditation required for the making of non-woven fibre parts for aircraft wings.

Martin Thompson, managing director of TFP, said: “We bring the manufacturing costs down by 20 per cent and make it 20 per cent lighter.”

Meanwhile, the firm is keen to stress that it sees a strong future still for its paper division, which produced the first coloured paper in the 1850s and is seeking to carry on that tradition of innovation through initiatives such as a process to recycle throw-away tea and coffee cups into paper and a process to make paper from cocoa bean shells for a chocolate firm in Switzerland.

The extended Cropper family still owns neatly 40 per cent of the company, which has helped enable the company to make £60m of investment in the past 10 years.

The firm has a sales office in China and a manufacturing plant in the US, all controlled from its Cumbrian HQ on the banks of the River Kent.