Rewind to the future

Recognised as one of the global leaders in the supply of slitting and rewinding equipment across several chosen markets, Atlas Converting Equipment Ltd. is a UK manufacturing business that reaches clients across the world

Operating out of its main head office, situated within Kempston, Bedford, Atlas Converting Equipment Ltd. (Atlas) was established during 1976 and has since amassed over four decades of expertise in the specialist design and manufacture of primary and secondary slitter rewinders for a wide range of flexible materials including plain and metallised plastic film, label stock and paper products.

The business was originally founded by a group of four individuals who had previously worked for another company in the slitting rewind industry and subsequently decided to form their own venture. “When Atlas first started during the 1970s the growth of plastic film was very significant and this helped to drive the growing market for plastic packaging. This was a very chemical orientated environment with strong ties to the European and American markets, through companies like ICI, ExxonMobil and 3M that were heavily involved in the development of plastics,” details Managing Director, Alan Johnson. “During this time, Atlas became involved in a number of product lines including plastic film, label stock, specialist papers, even magnetic tape and photographic film.”

Since its early establishment, Atlas has performed admirably and continued to grow within several markets, leading to the company taking the strategic decision to purchase the Titan brand in 1981. Titan had itself entered into the market for slitter rewinders and other equipment during 1964, giving the business more than 50 years of brand recognition. Over the following year as the company further developed, Atlas made investments into additional acquisitions including the Manchesterbased firms General Vacuum Equipment and Hurley Moate Engineering, specialised businesses in the production of vacuum coating technology and winding/unwinding equipment.

By 1997 the decision was taken to sell Atlas to the Finnish Valmet Corporation as part of the firm’s strategy to enter into the market for flexible plastics through the formation of its own flexible materials division. This was bolstered by the further acquisition of several Italian companies that also focused on the manufacture of flexible packaging products. By 1999 Valmet had merged with the Finnish Rauma Corporation to form the Metso Corporation. The ownership of Atlas by Metso however, was relatively short-lived and the business was eventually sold to the Swiss Bobst Group in 2004. Like Metso, Bobst was keen to expand into the growing market for flexible packaging and the Atlas acquisition proved to be highly successful. This was the case until the 2008 banking crisis spurring Bobst to sell-off some of its non-core businesses. This resulted in Atlas Converting Equipment Ltd. returning to private ownership through an equitable management buy-out (MBO) of the firm from the Bobst Group by a group of individuals operating within the business. “The MBO was completed in October 2010, meaning that the business has essentially gone full-circle, in that the company is today once again privately owned by four individuals,” Alan observes. “Under this arrangement, the business continues to design, manufacture and service slitting and rewinding equipment under both the Titan and Atlas brands.”

Following its return to private ownership, Atlas has further established a strong global presence. The business continues to be based at its Bedford headquarters and also maintains global sales and service centres within North America, India and China. These offices are supported by a dedicated network of sales representatives operating throughout the US, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and Australasia. While both the Atlas and Titan brands today operate within the field of delivering flexible material products, there are important differences in the types of machines that are provided by each side of the business. Atlas primarily targets the production of larger film extruded products and slitting machines that are used in the production of large rolls of plastic film, which is predominantly produced using biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) or biaxially oriented polyester (BOPET), but are also used for CPP (Cast Polypropylene) and BOPA (Nylon). Titan machines however, are smaller and geared towards short production runs with high throughputs for applications such as printed, metallised and laminated products.

“We are essentially present at the beginning and the end of the plastic film manufacturing value chain and in this respect, we are employing the same technology for completely different applications. Looking at the width of the equipment that we manufacture for example, Atlas brand machines are anything from 2.5 metres up to 10.5 metres in width, with speeds up to 1500mt/min. Meanwhile, Titan machines range from anything between 2.5 metres and smaller widths, with speeds from 400mt/min to 1000mt/min. Further to being a lot smaller, Titan machines also tend to incorporate increased levels of automation to assist with shorter production runs,” Alan explains. “The films that are produced by these machines are not just simply used in the market for packaging, but are also used in the manufacture of optical grade polyester for computer screens, telephone and laptop screens, solar panels and many other products.”

Atlas and Titan has established a strong installed base of more than 4000 machines in around 83 countries throughout the world. While the business has built an impressive presence across the globe, Atlas does not fabricate any of the parts for the machines that it supplies. Instead, the company fully designs all of its machines in-house to meet the requirements of both its clients and the wider market. The majority of the materials that are incorporated into the units are sourced from suppliers within the UK, while some core components are further sourced from trusted suppliers based in mainland Europe. “As an example, the rolls that are used on the wider machines are made using high modulus carbon fibre by companies operating from within Europe. The reason for this is to keep the weight of the rollers down, but with a highrigidity countering any major deflection of the roll, which is an important consideration when winding very thin films at high speeds,” Alan reveals. “In terms of development, we bring the parts into our workshop where we can finish and paint the components as required. We then also fully assemble and wire the machines to enable us to test the units before sending them out to the client. The larger machines are disassembled prior to shipping, because the completed assets can weigh in excess of 100 tonnes!”

By establishing a strong global presence in terms of both its sales and service operations, Atlas has formed strong relationships with some of the world’s largest players within the market for flexible plastic products. Furthermore, the company is also able to meet the changing demands of developing regions around the world to take advantage of potentially lucrative opportunities as they arise. “Much of the growth in the production of plastic film products has moved into the Eastern region. You can actually track the growth of the plastics market to the countries with the largest populations, where these areas also presently have some of the highest rates of economic development. Both India and China have some of the world’s largest concentrations of population and this is driving the demand for plastic packaging, which is fuelled by the growing expectations of an expanding middle class. This has caused a rise in the consumption of luxury goods and this has been further linked to the development of additional infrastructure for supermarkets, chilled foods and other goods that require plastic packaging,” Alan says.

“One of the largest customers for Atlas machines is Jindal Poly Films Limited in India, which became one of our largest clients by acquisition after purchasing the ExxonMobil film business. Further clients for Atlas include the Middle East-based Taghleef Industries an the Gettel Group in China, which is a leading producer of flexible plastic products in the region,” he adds. “The market tends to be much more fragmented, but no less busy for Titan machines. Here clients include Amcor, which was previously Alcan Packaging, as well as Bemis Packaging and Constantia Flexibles. Each of these firms represent some of the biggest packaging firms in the world and account for a large part of the Titan brand’s market presence.”

To support the company’s on-going expansion into the global market, Atlas has developed a forward-thinking business strategy based on bespoke design and the implementation of an advanced enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The new system went live across Atlas during late 2015 and has since been fully integrated into every aspect of the business, from its finance and sales divisions through to operations, final delivery and customer service. “Our philosophy in terms of design is to identify a position within the marketplace, which can be in either new or existing applications, while working with anything from flexible packaging to film, or even new areas where plastic is being used. We will look at what productivity is required, what the technical specification of the offering should be and what the price will be. This means that we can position a product very effectively and determine whether there is suitable demand for a new system, in which case we can further implement additional research and development (R&D) into the final design of new machines,” Alan elaborates.

“This allows us to develop a unique product platform, which is essentially a configurable machine that includes all of the standard options and variants to effectively support the part of the market that we want to cover. We then develop a product configuring application, the front end of which is a selling tool that provides automatically generated quotations and prices,” he continues. “This also generates a machine structure with a list of bills of material (BOMs) and costings, which means that when an order is received we can release a configured-to-order (CTO) product, while the bills of materials and routings of the order are passed to our purchasing and operations teams. We also offer what we call CTO-Plus options that include small additional customisations for the customer; and we provide engineered-to-order (ETO) solutions that require a large amount of engineering that is specific to the client.”

During the remainder of 2017 and beyond, Atlas will continue to build on the application of its new ERP system to further drive efficiencies across the business. This will enable the company to develop new products, while furthering its relationships with both new and existing clients. “We are already developing key performance indicators (KPIs) based on the data retrieved by the ERP system, which means that we can see where things are working and where we can make improvements. This will greatly benefit the development of our next R&D development, which is focused on a new machine to be launched in the second half of 2018,” Alan concludes. “Our overall strategic vision is to maintain our market position both in terms of the company’s current substrate and geographic presence while looking at new markets where we can leverage our technical expertise to give customers a competitive edge. This is an exciting opportunity for Atlas, because we are one of only a few businesses globally that are able to deliver machines at each end of the flexible material value chain.”

Atlas Converting Equipment Ltd.
Products: Slitting and rewinding equipment