HUNTINGDONSHIRE could soon find itself firmly on the international commercial map, even staging its own overseas trade missions.

Few people realise how strong the district's manufacturing base is, but with nearly 10,000 people employed in manufacturing-related activities and the prospect of an enterprise zone at Alconbury Airfield, it is one of the keys to Huntingdonshire's future prosperity.

The district council's economic development team and planners recognised the importance of manufacturing some years ago, particularly the opportunity to make the products of Cambridge's creativity.

Why manufacture in China something invented in Cambridge when you can do it better and probably no less expensively 15 miles down the road in Huntingdonshire, they argued.

But the district also has its own niche manufacturing sectors, such as composites and printed circuits board, with specialist manufacturers seemingly having clustered - probably only partly by chance - in Hunts.

Against that background, and also to support more traditional manufacturing companies, HDC decided last year to facilitate the setting up of the Huntingdonshire Manufacturers' Association to help firms in the sector share knowledge and expertise, said the council's Ben Hooson.

The HMA's chairman, Stuart Gibbons, managing director of Houghton-based Le Mark Group, also wants them to share export opportunities.

"What I would love to see is a collection of dynamic Huntingdonshire businesses involved in overseas trade missions," he told The Hunts Post. "Although we are involved in different sectors, there's quite a good fit, and what we produce here could be extremely attractive to overseas customers in the right markets."

With around 200 companies eligible for membership - typically with 20-50 employees - HMA is already achieving turnout of 35-40 companies at its meetings.

Supporting Mr Gibbons is a committee of 12, including representatives of high-profile Huntingdonshire firms such as Lola, Solocup Europe, paving manufacturer Marshalls and composites-to-motorbike group Encocam.

"Having helped to get it going, and now that it is developing its own momentum, HDC wants to take a back seat, Mr Hooson said. "It's now at the stage where people see benefits from it. The next steps are to tackle things such as what the local enterprise partnership can do, and where the next generation of the workforce is coming from and how we get people to realise that manufacturing has changed."

HMA is about the launch a website, which will provide a forum for members to understand what benefits are available to them - such as 100 per cent R&D tax credits or free language tuition at Anglia Ruskin University - and to share information and even components, as is already happening between circuit board-makers in St Ives.

There may in future be joint procurement initiatives and shared logistics opportunities.

Mr Hooson believes the association will be helpful in selling Huntingdonshire to potential inward investors, not least to Alconbury if it is given enterprise zone status later this month.

"We see HMA as a conduit for letting people know what's available. And, with the shortage [business support] money available, it's even more important for Huntingdonshire to get what we can. There are a lot of things SMEs don't realise are there for them."