Rutland Plastics was featured in the October edition of ‘The Manufacturer’. Jonny Williamson, a B2B journalist focusing on the manufacturing sector came to chat with one of our Directors, Stuart Johnston, about the challenges of running a plastic injection moulding company in the UK at the moment….
Breaking the mould: The Midlands firm succeeding through continuous improvement
Rutland Plastics has undergone a high-impact business transformation over the past two decades. The results are reflected in its strong partnerships with customers and the groaning shelves of its trophy cabinet. Jonny Williamson reports.
The process of plastic injection moulding has largely gone unchanged in 100 years. Molten plastic is forced under pressure to fill a mould cavity where it cools, hardens and is then released. What has changed is the efficiency of modern machines, the power of software and the importance of environmental stewardship.
Combine all three and you can understand why Rutland Plastics was named Processor of the Year at the Plastics Industry Awards (PIA) 2021. As the judges noted, they were looking for a company demonstrating exceptional business growth, technological innovation, people development, manufacturing efficiency, customer relations and environmental concerns.
The custom plastic injection moulder was also a finalist in the PIA’s Covid-19 Business Hero category and won a similar award earlier that year from the Made in the Group. It was an easy decision for Rutland Plastics to support the local and national response, having been part of the East Midlands community for more than 65 years.
Modern tools and thinking
A key factor in Rutland Plastics’ ongoing success is a steadfast belief in continual investment. Over the past 18 months alone, the family-owned company has invested more than £1.5m in the latest machine technology, including five new moulding machines and a machining centre for its tooling department.
The new machines have increased production capacity, enabling the business to become a 24/7 operation for the first time in its history, but they are also significantly more energy efficient than older machines – up to 40% more in some cases.
The investments are the latest in a string of improvements that includes the redevelopment of almost the entire site, additional moulding and toolroom equipment, 3D printers, an ERP system, 3D simulation software, a paperless shop floor, ISO 14001 (Environmental) and ISO 13485 (Medical Devices) accreditations and a 250kWh solar panel installation.
Equally important is the change in business strategy and leadership style spearheaded by Managing Director Steve Ayre and fellow Director Stuart Johnson. I sat down with Stuart to learn more.
Your arrival in 2009 coincided with adopting a bottom-up management approach and a push to diversify the business. What influenced those decisions?
SJ: When I joined in early January 2009, Rutland Plastics had just had its strongest year ever. The ensuing 12 months were much harder for obvious reasons. Around that time, we realised that 40% of our business was reliant on one customer and we needed to diversify.
We focused on our strengths – building strong partnerships with our customers, suppliers, colleagues [staff] and the community while investing in areas that add real value – and devised a strategy that brought that to the fore.
Our strategy had three pillars. To take on more technically challenging work, something that Rutland Plastics is known for having helped develop the process of electrofusion welding for plastic pipes during the 1980s. To focus on small to medium-sized customers seeking a long-term partner. To provide complementary value-added services such as design for manufacture, rapid prototyping, machining, assembly and warehousing.
We also reflected on how the business operated. Like many SMEs, Rutland Plastics was very much top-down with colleagues waiting to be told what to do. Steve and I wanted to involve all our colleagues in the business and give them a more active role.
We initiated a process whereby management information is very openly shared and people have ownership of their own part of the business. They are responsible for taking that part forward and understand how that helps take the whole company forward. Crucially, every colleague feels they have a long-term stake in the business.
Did those changes help put the company in a more secure position during the pandemic and resulting lockdowns?
Yes. That was a testing time for anyone involved in manufacturing. The introduction of our new strategy did put us ahead of the curve, but we also have a fantastic team who understand what we’re trying to achieve.
It was a challenging period, but our plan was simple: unless the government physically locked the factory doors, we would do everything possible to stay open because we knew the world wouldn’t stop and customers would need to continue being served.
Medical products are part of our portfolio and we extended our output with additional components, some of which went into the NHS Nightingale Hospitals. We were also part of the national consortium geared up to increase the manufacture of ventilators, and helped produce full-screen face shields distributed for free to front-line NHS staff and key workers.
Things are probably going to quiet down now for a period. There are always external factors beyond your control. Our approach is to focus on managing our operation and maintaining strong relationships with our customers so that when the situation changes, we can accelerate out of the blocks as fast as possible.
The financial crisis stimulated a shift in how Rutland Plastics was structured and operated. Has the pandemic done likewise?
Largely it just galvanised our sense of being on the right path. One thing it did emphasise was the need to become more efficient. As a result, we have dedicated time and money to explore how and where we can introduce automation.
That’s easier said than done. We typically change the work running through our machines every 24 or 48 hours. That makes introducing traditional automation quite challenging compared to a business that produces the same thing day in, day out.
Consequently, we’re focusing initially on collaborative robots [cobots] and using jigs and fixtures. Our aim is three-fold. Firstly, to become more efficient; secondly, to improve quality; and thirdly, to eliminate the mundane tasks some of our colleagues perform.
One process we’ve successfully automated regards jobs where plastic is moulded around a threaded metal insert. A cobot now inserts and removes those parts rather than it being done manually.
Our use of jigs is about finding ways to help colleagues perform repetitive tasks less frequently. For example, if a robot is physically incapable of handling a particular insert, can a jig system enable someone to insert a stack of eight rather than just one? The colleague now has time to perform another task while the machine works through those eight before returning to load another stack.
Sustainability is a large part of your continuous improvement. What actions have you taken to reduce your environmental impact?
The redevelopment of our site involved building a new £2.2m 3,500 pallet-space warehouse, the single biggest investment in our history. It was built partly to offer customer stockholding, which has quickly become a competitive edge for us. It enables us to swiftly dispatch goods straight from the warehouse rather than a customer having to wait five weeks or more from order to delivery.
The building has a 30,000 sq. ft roof and solar panels just seemed like a no-brainer to Steve and I. We’re both very keen on minimising our power usage and our environmental impact.
Our installation of more than 900 photo voltaic panels has the capacity to generate approximately 20% of our demand at peak. In June 2022, we produced our one-millionth kWh of electricity – enough to power approximately 750,000 homes for an hour.
In addition to generating our own solar electricity, all our purchased electricity is through the Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin (REGO) scheme. We are also reducing our energy consumption by using a free air-cooling system, smart lighting, barrel jackets fitted to all moulding machines, a real-time energy monitoring system and continuous investment in more efficient machines.
All recyclable plastic waste is recycled on-site or via off-site partners, and we have drastically reduced paper waste through cloud-based storage and document management and implementing ePayslips.
Regarding manufacturing more sustainable products, 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined during the design phase. Our expertise allows us to guide customers in taking as much plastic out of their design as possible and choosing the right plastic.
That might be using a recycled or easily recyclable plastic; it may be a plastic which contains a talc or glass filler. For example, if the specification calls for the product to be very strong, the traditional solution would be to make it very thick. Adding glass fibres provides enhanced strength, which allows you to thin the design and use less plastic.
What are the opportunities and challenges for your business and the UK plastics industry?
We see huge opportunities, particularly on the back of Brexit and Covid-19. There has been a realisation that global supply chains aren't working and that we need to build more secure and value-added supplier networks. That starts with looking closer to home.
We’ve picked up quite a lot of work recently, not from reshoring per se, but rather production not being offshored to start with. Many of our customers will have an evolutionary approach to product development and will periodically release the next generation. Those customers are coming to us to manufacture those new products rather than using their existing Asian suppliers.
In terms of challenges, the immediate risk is the soaring price of energy. We’re assisting the British plastics Federation and Make UK to make the case for government aid to industries like ours. The price cap on wholesale power prices for 6 months is welcome, but the question remains - what happens after that? The review in January will have an option to extend support to vulnerable businesses, but what does this mean in reality?''
I don’t know what form, if any, that assistance will take, what systems the government will put in place, but I do know that if we don't do something more long term, a lot of manufacturing businesses, particularly those that are energy intensive, won't survive the next 24 months.
The longer-term threat is our lack of a robust, coherent UK manufacturing strategy. Manufacturing policy works, at best, in five-year terms for the government, that doesn’t work for industry. Politicians in Westminster need to recognise that manufacturing is a hugely important part of the economy and if they want us to invest in capital equipment and new factories and create jobs and add value to the economy, then we need a long-term industrial strategy.
You've invested £1.5m in the past 18 months, you've transformed all but one building on-site; what's next?
Honestly, we’re going to pause and plan. We brought a lot of investment forward because the right government incentives were in place to do so. We're pausing because of the global economic uncertainty but also to reflect on what we’ve achieved so far and where we go next.