Package deal

Posted on 7 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

After 25 years in business, Atlas Packaging is determined to move forward with a business plan based on agility, innovation and customer service, Clive Gamble told Ruari McCallion

Packaging protects goods in transit and is the first thing the customer sees on delivery – and first impressions last, as they say. It’s a bit paradoxical that it should often find itself on the wrong side of the commodity/value added spectrum. It’s highly competitive and margins are tight. You may wonder where innovation has the opportunity to come in: Atlas Packaging will be very happy to enlighten you.

“Kirton Farm sells live plants, which are ordered online and delivered in our boxes,” said Clive Gamble, operations director for Atlas Packaging and co-owner with his brother, Adrian. Plants are quite delicate; the Atlas boxes are made from a tough EB flute outer casing, with a complex and unique cradle inside to hold the plants securely – they will remain in place even if turned upside-down. Paraten board, sourced from France, is internally laminated with a waterproof membrane to protect the packaging from the dampness of the plants, which would otherwise weaken it. The outside of the box has specially designed graphics for an eyecatching finish; it’s made of five-times recycled board and the eco-awareness is complemented by Kirton’s use of coir fibre growing pots, rather than the more common plastic. A similar system is used for Riverford Organic Food, which sends seasonal vegetables to its mail order and online customers.

“We’re proud of our ability to react to market changes, whether in shelf-ready packaging or in new product lines, like the Kirton Farm and Riverford products. We’re a service industry, so the ability to react is key,” said Gamble. The Kirton Farm box line gained the company ‘Best Transit Packaging’ and ‘Best Component’ in 2007’s Starpack awards.

Atlas, which is based in Barnstaple, Devon, is seeing significant growth in a highly competitive business. “Turnover this year will be around £12 to £12.5 million; two years ago, it was between £8 and £9 million. We’re looking for – and achieving – increased sales in food, horticulture, shelf-ready packaging, and mail order and internet shopping.”

Continuing the eco-friendly theme, Atlas recovers the water from waste ink and recycles it, in a complete closed-loop process. “At the end of the job, we wash down the ‘stereo’ printing plate and the water-ink mixture goes to our effluent water treatment plant. It separates the water from the ink and any cardboard that may have got caught up. The solids go to waste but the water is returned to us, completely pure,” he explained. “It’s environmentally sound and saves costs – previously, we had tanker removals of water three times a week.” Offcuts are collected via an air driven duct running under every machine, then baled and sold for use in recycled board – which may come back to Atlas.

The company has its own in-house graphic design team, which works closely with customers to get the best out of their packaging, both in visual appearance and in optimising use of materials.
It may seem like an excessive overhead but Atlas is convinced it’s the right way to go; it enables the company to provide full cradle-to-grave service and adds value both to customers and to the company itself. But it’s the continuous drive for improvement that pushes Atlas forward.

“One of the key issues in this industry is that we won’t get orders if we don’t hold stocks. Merchants and competitors do so and customers expect to be able to call off at a moment’s notice,” said Gamble. Everyone knows that inventory is the enemy of lean operations, whether the inventory is ‘consignment stocking’ or finished goods in a warehouse. In a business with tight margins, how does Atlas balance the need for stockholding with the need to liberate working capital? “We have to ensure that our safety stocks and replenishment levels are very, very lean, which means producing more batches, more frequently. We currently have a three-day production turnaround and we keep everything as tight as we can.” If the amount of finished goods in stock is higher than zero, there has to be an even stronger focus on driving waste out of the rest of the system.

Gamble joined the company two years ago; he and his brother and other members of the management team bought the 50 per cent share previously owned by Mondi UK when it refocused on production of sheet board. It remains one of Atlas’ major suppliers. Gamble’s brief is to bring lean concepts to the company, gained from years of manufacturing experience with Jungheinrich UK, Brush Traction and Matrix Churchill.

“Two years ago, the company was ripe with low-hanging fruit, just waiting to be harvested.
The first thing we did was to get our tooling sorted, stored in the right place and available when needed. Every morning, at seven o’clock, our tooling guy removes the previous shift’s tools and puts in the new ones, so the morning shift is ready to go. That prompted a 5S/5C drive, which people saw was a good thing,” he said. Sixteen of the company’s 60 shopfloor employees (out of 96 in total) are undertaking NVQs in business improvement. “We have introduced new meaningful KPIs, OEE and precise measurements of downtime,” he said.

“About 18 months ago, we introduced shopfloor data collection with touchscreen computers. It records job start-up, stop and any downtime, including changeover time. We reorganised our production flow and the factory layout. We’ve invested approaching £2 million in new plant, including a Bobst machine and two new Latitude machines – the first in the UK. We have rotary die equipment for printing and cutting board, and a casemaker, which glues everything together.” Atlas’ equipment can produce 22,000 cases per hour, compared with the previous machinery’s 5000.

“We’ve doubled our production floorspace and created additional warehouse space,” said Gamble. “Our mission statement is that we are customer focused and process driven, striving towards operational excellence in a company supported by its people. That’s what we are; it translates to outstanding service in our chosen markets.”