Looking to the future
For those converters battling through the doldrums of a global recession it may come as a glimmer of hope that there once were halcyon days for machine manufacturers in the UK.
Whether those glory days will ever return is open to debate but it is unlikely that the time of full order books, limited competition and the time to spend designing bespoke machines will ever come back.
One man who has experienced the highs and lows of the converting industry, from running his own component manufacturing business prior to the introduction of flexible packaging when goods were still wrapped in paper to designing top-of-the range core cutters and slitter rewinders, is Peter Kelly, founder of Parkland International.
“I acquired my engineering skills and training as an apprentice back in the 1960s,” he told Converter during a recent visit. “But I always wanted to start and run my own business. It was tough to leave a secure job as chief engineer at a well-known company but it proved to be the right decision.”
Peter set up PL Technical Services in 1972 to provide a component design and manufacturing service to an industry that was starting to boom. As a multi-skilled engineer he began in a small way, borrowing the money to buy a lathe, electric saw and a drilling machine. He had also designed his first core cutter, the TC-20 and started to win a few sales. In fact, prefiguring the international emphasis to come, his very first sale was to a company in Bahrain.
“I have always believed in my ability to provide solutions,” he says. “Despite setbacks and frustrations at the outset.”
PL Technical Services began a successful period of around 13 years. Early on, the company had found a compatible agent and sales took a modest but profitable step forward.
Peter could see the way the industry was moving in the mid 80s and foresaw the rise and rise of flexible packaging that was to make demands that some old-style paper slitter rewinder manufacturers could not satisfy. This shift led to the emergence of one or two big players intent on developing higher specification machines built to standard, and not bespoke, designs that called for improved control and tension systems to cope with film, laminations and vacuum coated substrates.
“There were one or two companies that capitalised on the demand for flexible food packaging and saw the potential, including the company where I had spent my apprenticeship,” says Peter. “Funnily enough, the country had just survived a recession and a three day week before a new period of opportunity opened up. And that is just what could be happening now.”
In 1985 Parkland Machines was born and set up as a company that would venture into higher risk areas of business using PL Technical Services as its main sub-contract manufacturer.
Peter designed his first slitter, the SM150, around this time targeting the labelstock market and working with materials suppliers and manufacturers where short runs were the dominant requirement.
“I think you always remember your first sale,” he says. “We sold our very first SM150 to a company that was then called Newfoil Labels in Bolton. And, it is still running and performing well today.”
Wisely, Peter Kelly steered Parkland Machines away from the temptation of trying to compete with companies that were rapidly becoming mass market machine builders, preferring instead to concentrate on the equally important market designing bespoke machines for more niche applications.
What followed was a period of unparalleled growth and the design and development of the SM series of slitters including cantilevered models; machines to hot slit ribbons, non-woven and decorative ribbons as well as a duplex centre winder model, the SM350.
Another driver for developing the Parkland range of slitters was that of core cutter sales, although steady, had one major built-in restriction. Customers, however large, usually bought only one core cutter per plant and so a new customer had to be found for every sale.
As competition grew, Peter realised he would have to pay attention to marketing and promotion to keep the Parkland name at the front of customers’ minds. As a result of taking part in exhibitions and advertising in trade journals sales took on a global dimension.
“I think the only developed country we had not sold a machine into was Australia,” Peter maintains. “We decided around this time that we were not really getting much in the way of business or new sales from our agent so we handled things in-house. We realised that we were probably seen as a company providing a quality product, but a little expensive and probably old-fashioned so we re-branded ourselves to Parkland International to reflect the level of exports we were achieving. We were selling sometimes 40 percent of our output outside the UK. We had to modernise our appeal and develop our Internet presence to the point where we have actually sold a core cutter direct from our website.”
But, Parkland International’s story does not stop here. Peter and his co-Directors have been involved with the setting up of an international consortium of like minded companies that is avowed to keep its operation simple but offer a true one-stop collective shop for customers. The exact shape, constituent companies and operational objectives have yet to be revealed but the first step has been the opening of Parkland International’s US operation in Maine under the leadership of director Chris van Haasteren. He is an experienced manufacturer across the converting industry.
“This is a fantastic opportunity to become part of the Parkland team and launch an established product range into the US, it will provide the North American market with new technology for the converting industry, providing increased productivity, greater quality and accuracy and meeting advanced health and safety requirements,” he says.