Best of British: Purveyors of fantastic plastics

Brett Martin is a long-established specialist in plastics that are used around the world in a wide range of applications. Its sheet plastics division makes materials such as foamboard, PET and acrylics, are used in print-related applications in sign, display and related work.

The company’s huge HQ and manufacturing site in Northern Ireland
The company’s huge HQ and manufacturing site in Northern Ireland

It also has a division devoted to construction materials (mainly plastic pipework) and lighting systems (mainly clear glazing materials for roofing and the like).

The company was set up in 1958 by WH Martin, father of the current owners, in Newtownabbey, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. This is just to the north of Belfast. The Martin family remains actively involved in day to day management; Laurence Martin is managing director while Brian Martin is another director.

The business was incorporated as W.H. Martin Plastics in 1972, originally to make fibreglass sheets for agricultural and industrial roofing. These were hand-made at first, but the company developed the industrial expertise and ingenuity to mechanise the process for continuous extrusion. The business soon became the dominant UK producer of the product, which financed the expansion into the extrusion of tin-stabilised polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheets for use in commercial and domestic applications. It took over plastic drainage specialist Brett Plastics Ltd in Staveley in Derbyshire in 1978, although the current name Brett Martin was only adopted in 1990.

The extrusion of PVC sheets suited to printing was introduced in 1991, followed by other flat sheet products using PET (in PETg and aPET versions for different uses), acrylic and styrene.

There are now seven sites throughout the UK. The headquarters at County Antrim is said to have the largest single site polycarbonate extrusion facility of its kind. There are actually seven separate factories on this site, for extruding polycarbonate, acrylic, PET, PVC, foam PVC and styrene sheets, plus a centre of excellence for injection-moulded fittings. All of the print-related media products are produced in County Antrim.

There are other manufacturing facilities in Coventry and the original Brett location in Staveley, specialising in the manufacture of drainage and rooflight systems. There are polycarbonate cutting facilities in Burscough and Thetford and separate distribution hubs in Luton for southern England and Cumbernauld for Scotland and north west England.

Turnover and distribution

Growth has been consistent and steady over its 60 years, some through acquisition but predominantly organic. Today some 800 people are employed across all the sites in the UK and Europe. The company exports over 50% of its £110m turnover to more than 70 countries worldwide. Around 75% of the printable sign and display materials are exported. Key markets are UK, Ireland, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America, Latin America and the Middle East. The company has a network of distributors internationally.

Reinvestment of profits averages more than £4m per year, including skills training and systems development.

Printable plastics

In the past two to three decades, plastics have really come to the fore for large-format printing, especially as traditional sign making techniques moved from a mix of hand painting, screen-printing and multi-sheet litho work, to today’s largely digital printing methods that are dependent on wide-format inkjets with plastic-friendly inks.

Brett Martin has been a supplier to the signage and display sector for over 35 years. “With our growing expertise in plastic sheet extrusion in the 1990s it was a natural progression to develop other market sectors for these material solutions, particularly print and display,” says sales director Duncan Smith. “We were producing PVC roofing sheets and identified an opportunity for Foam PVC sheet almost 30 years ago for screen printing and vinyl application in the display sector. We partnered with key paper/graphics distributors early to innovate and develop our range so that with the advent of the flatbed digital printing revolution we were ideally placed to supply the market.

“Early innovators like Durst and Inca were instrumental in our development of Foamalux White, a UV stable, bright white, direct to print Foam PVC substrate necessary for this emerging technology.”

In preparation for this, the company carried out extensive research into how colour pigmentation worked with this material. The understanding gained into UV stability and optimised colour reproduction led to further products being introduced. These included Foamalux Colour, in 12 shades (plus others to order) and Foamalux Ultra with a co-extruded gloss top surface for improved UV protection and stability.

Most recently, Foamalux Calibre has been launched as an all-rounder board from 10mm up to 30mm thickness. The calibrating process used in manufacture provides a very hard surface while remaining lightweight and very rigid, the company says. This is particularly useful for free-standing applications and fabricated parts, as it routers well and can be screwed or bonded together to create 3D items.

Clear sheet plastics are also used for print, sometimes as alternatives to glass, but also as point of sale items such as leaflet holders. Brett Martin’s polycarbonate, Marlon FS, is calculated to give 200 times more impact resistance than glass, with only half the weight. Its Marpet-g FS PETg is offered for thermoforming of complex shapes in sign, display and store fixture applications. Marpet-a FS aPET is intended for flat and cold bending applications, such as price tags, POS displays, shop fittings, poster covers and light boxes. A high-gloss acrylic sheet, Marcryl FS Acrylic, is suited to applications that require a high-end finish, such as displays, leaflet holders, POS equipment, as well as assorted fixtures and light boxes.

The company has continued its policy of working with printer suppliers. “We actively engage with the world’s top manufacturers of wide-format and flatbed printers to ensure that our range is continuously improving with technological developments and performs to the highest possible standards,” says Smith. “Through our approved partner scheme, we have built relationships with companies like Agfa, EFI, HP, Jetrix/Inktec and HP, to ensure that all Brett Martin products have been officially validated for use with the manufacturers’ machines.

“We provide test material on an ongoing basis to key players so that they can carry out the necessary tests and establish machines settings and specs to ensure the best results from both print media and printing technology.”

Environmental responses

Concerns about the impact of plastics on global environments are currently high in the public awareness, partly triggered by the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series and follow-up campaigns by environmental groups.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) tends attract particular criticism on several counts, some more justified than others. It’s used extensively across a broad range of industrial, technical and everyday applications including building, transport, packaging, electrical/electronic, healthcare and of course printed applications.

Smith defines the issues from Brett Martin’s point of view: “The first patent for a polymerisation process to manufacture PVC was granted to German inventor Friedrich Klatte in 1913 and PVC has been in commercial production since 1933. The material now accounts for about 20% of all plastic manufactured worldwide.

“PVC has had bad press, particularly in the 1960s and 70s and since this time the material has evolved and innovated to remove the heavy metal content that made it unpopular.” Originally lead and cadmium were used as stabilisers. “It is a very versatile material, easy to process, long lasting, tough and light. It has a relatively low petrochemical content to other materials and is predominantly salt – in fact around 60% salt. It also has a lower carbon footprint and consumes less primary energy during production than any of the other commodity plastics.”

Despite some popular perceptions, PVC is fully recyclable, Smith points out. “Due to its properties it reprocesses well and can be recycled into second or third life applications with ease. The PVC industry is actually leading the way and there are great industry initiatives underway that support and advocate post-consumer recycling. For example Recovinyl provides financial incentives to support the collection of PVC waste from non-regulated sectors. This European scheme, backed by the British Plastics Federation, aims to ensure a steady supply of post-consumer PVC waste for recycling.”

Proving the point about recyclability, Brett Martin’s Foamalux Xtra board range has a core of 80% recycled material, while using virgin white PVC for the outer layers. It has good printing characteristics, says the company, and can also be routered and engraved well.

An alternative to recycling PVC is not to use it in the first place, using alternative materials such as acrylics or PETg, and it’s worth noting that many of the end-products made using the firm’s materials have a long lifespan. Smith says “Our R&D team are proactive in working and identifying new technologies and we actively investigating and working with our supply chain to introduce new alternatives to the market.” As for new printable products in general, Smith says: “Watch this space!”


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