You can’t get more ‘just-in-time’ than having your main supplier so near that a short ramp connects you. Pulse Plastics has a growing business manufacturing packaging for the steel industry while Polymer Extrusions supplies the recycled material that Pulse uses.
Both are run by people who were looking for new opportunities 30 years ago but never imagined they would work in the plastics sector. Bill Clayton, above, and Ian Jones have only been neighbours in their south Wales industrial estate for around 18 months. Neither knew each other – until WRAP in Wales brought them together.
The seeds of the partnership were sown many years ago when Clayton’s only business experience had been running a fruit and veg van in the Caerphilly area. For some reason, “the dole” thought he should go for an interview with a local company making plastic medical products – in those days, all using virgin materials. For the next dozen years, his experience and horizons grew. Instead of driving around Caerphilly, Clayton was travelling the world, setting up moulds for TV giants such as Sony and Panasonic.
That changed 18 years ago with a shift to injection moulding, when he built a decent-size business for himself. But he wasn’t alone: “It got so competitive. Every industrial estate in Wales had five injection moulding companies, so it just got to the point you couldn’t compete, it wasn’t worth doing.”
This prompted a switch: buying plastics companies in other sectors and diversification into manufacturing – anything that is extruded.
While Clayton is a practical, technical man, Jones is much more the classic ideas man, an inventor.
“I used to be in the steel industry in 1980s,” says the Pulse Plastics boss, acknowledging experience that now offers huge potential for his products. “I was made redundant, so I went back to school and drifted into plastics. I’ve no qualification at all but I’m pretty good at what I can come up with.”
What he “came up with” was an alternative to expensive steel packaging wrapped around steel coils once they came off the production line and the coil inserts which had also typically been made from steel. Jones realised that HDPE would be a much cheaper alternative to both. Steel mills, including Tata in UK and abroad, are now using his products on their smaller coils and the challenge is to devise larger strapping that can be pulled quickly around the rolls as they come off the line. A fresh challenge for this inventor.
Pulse is only one of 50 customers of Polymer Extrusions. Clayton’s company makes plastic tubing for impromptu medical beds: inflatable mattresses contained in a tube which then cleverly doubles up as a pump. He also makes tubing for the lighting industry and tubes to house flares for the Ministry of Defence. After the manufacturing, came recycling.
“About three to four years ago, somebody came to us and said: ‘We’re throwing all this plastic out, can you break it down so we can mix it back in?’ and it went from there to using granulate and compounding it into new material with colours and additives. We’ve just grown and grown and grown from there with expertise we’ve learned over the years.”
The skills acquired by all these changes continue to offer fresh opportunity. In crates lie unwanted fibre rolls from the carpet industry. The polypropylene is extracted, leaving latex and hessian behind, and it is reprocessed with other additives back to “good polymer”.
Some customers are top-end motor manufacturers who send mouldings which fail quality control to be processed back into new polymer. But the car firms involved remain a trade secret. It doesn’t appear to make good advertising copy to boast that a luxury car on the forecourt contains a significant amount of secondary materials. Industry still has some way to go to embracing real resource efficiency, it seems.
The principal driver for Pulse’s move next door was additional space for the next stage of the company’s growth. He needed advice and WRAP Cymru was on hand through Damian Walsh, one of its business account managers and part of a team headed by Susan Jay, the business and markets manager. The support of account managers is unique to WRAP Cymru, as there is no equivalent within the parent organisation in England.
“Pulse was suffering for a long time,” says Jay. “The business could not develop because they had a lot of issues in terms of input materials and the flow of the equipment and that was holding them up. Bringing Pulse here enabled them to know they had a security of supply of quality material.”
Jones, above, is happy to trumpet the support of Walsh and the team: “WRAP are part of the family and we’ve had really good support. Not just financial. You can pick up the phone and explain. ‘I can’t help you but I know these people who can’, they’ll say. It’s a great relationship.”
Clayton agrees: “I’ve gained no end since we got involved with WRAP two years ago, it was Damien’s introduction to Pulse. I’d never heard of Pulse. It was a garage-size business they were operating but now it’s a nice size industry.”
Walsh says account managers are very close to the businesses they support and there is a good working relationship with both Jones and Clayton. “Bill even phones me up sometimes on a Saturday morning for a chat. There’s an element of trust because we are potentially bringing quite a lot of money to the table and these guys have got to divulge a hell of a lot of information.
“The best way is to get into the nuts and bolts and understand it. Where are you now, where do you want to be and how can we help you get there. Bill knows his business better than anyone but sometimes you can be too close to it. I use the analogy of a football referee. How many times have you missed something when everyone watching sees it as plain as day? Same here: he’s up to his elbows in plastics so sometimes it’s good to have a foil.”
Jay maintains WRAP Cymru has a different approach: “Our one-to-one business support is unique. Sometimes it can be looked at as a little old-fashioned and maybe not value for money. But here in Wales we find it works incredibly well. We have three account managers and their knowledge and experience is always really good. That enables us to do a little match-making which is extremely valuable. We can access expertise through consultants. If we think it needs someone looking at the marketplace, exploring what’s out there, away we go.”
Walsh has a specific example of that benefitting Polymer Extrusions: “Bill was working with a consultant, looking at what the risks and what the opportunities were. He identified the need for a new extrusion line and an application to us for that has been granted. At the same time, the consultant was working for an injection moulding company in another valley and as a result of a chance conversation, Bill was asked to supply specimen material. As a result, he now sends 20 tonnes of material every month.”
That company, adds Walsh, is now saving £150,000 a year by using secondary materials and for WRAP and the Welsh Government that sort of arrangement is key. As Jay points out, the deals build capacity to reprocess plastic and a marketplace for those materials: “We don’t have £20m to spend on a plastic reprocessing plant so it’s important we work with the smaller people, who can be more lithe and move with the times. Larger ones might need more investment which is not worth it for that material.”
She also points out that Wales doesn’t have many large companies: 99% of Welsh businesses are SMEs. Either way, it is important that quality material is recovered, processed and put back into new products in Wales.
WRAP Cymru can also work with the companies collecting commercial and industrial waste to ensure the feedstock is as good as possible. But it is not a blank cheque. For example, there is no support under the grants for research and development. So while Jones is working to design packaging for larger steel coils at big plants such as Llanwern and Shotton and abroad, there will be no help for his ‘inventor’ phase. But when it is developed, WRAP’s funding can kick in to build the product. It can also help him to protect his intellectual property rights.
Back at Polymer Extrusions, a new contract is getting underway the day MRW visits, processing plastic trays that used to carry camshafts to a local assembly line. Coincidentally, a moulder also phones that day to ask Clayton to supply 50 tonnes a month to be used for arches and sills for a luxury car manufacturer - who probably won’t be shouting that its latest model now boasts 40% secondary material. Clayton’s happy problem now is sourcing the waste plastic to deliver.
He is adamant that manufacturers need to be smarter and talks of one unnamed company which was paying a contractor to take away leftover nylon parts. Clayton now processes this unwanted nylon and sells it for £2,500 per tonne. The original owner is happy to take a cut while the business getting the processed ‘new’ nylon is saving considerably on the virgin price of around £6,000 per tonne. Polymer Extrusions also guarantees the quality of this recycled plastic. When Clayton benchmarks his products in this way he is doing it for their bottom line – and his.