Best of British: Stick with it all the way to the finish

Simon Eccles
Monday, December 17, 2018

Heanor in Derbyshire is home to Autobond, a 40-year-old family-run company that specialises in high-speed sheet laminators with heavy-duty construction and the latest electronics.

This is Britain’s longest-established laminator manufacturer and it’s been a major export success, currently sending 98% of its machines abroad. 

Since 1989 it has had a wholly owned subsidiary in the US, Autobond Inc, in Connecticut. In 2010 it developed its own digital spot UV varnishing inkjet and is now working to develop this into a full-colour printing and embellishment system. 

Today Autobond employs about 30 people and has a turnover of £5.5m. Managing director John Gilmore says: “I am at the head of a team of design and development engineers, most of whom I have known since they were 16, when they joined Autobond as apprentices. 

“We don’t employ salesmen, nor advertise, and do very little PR. Instead we put the money into research and development. We depend on the last machine out of the door to be our salesman and on repeat sales from companies who have run our machines for many years.”

The 2,500m² factory is on an industrial estate, about 20km from Derby and Nottingham. Autobond designs its own machines using 3D CAD software, machining the side frames, then assembling and testing everything in-house. “We use Lenze electronics and German gears, motors, bearings, steel, electronics, pumps, belts, feeders, gearboxes,” says Gilmore. “95% of our components are from Germany. The Germans have reliability in their DNA, we’ve just been wise enough to borrow it.”

Autobond was set up by George Gilmore and his son John, in November 1978, 40 years ago. John explains how it came about. “In the 1970s, my father owned a civil engineering company in Northern Ireland, and was building a power station at Kilroot, Carrickfergus. He came to Heanor to buy a company that manufactured earth-moving machinery. In the drawing office of that company was an engineer who had an idea about making film laminating machinery. My father took a Polaroid photograph of a prototype MF1 water-based, manually fed laminator and sent it to me – asking if I thought there would be a market for such a machine?

“At the time, I shared a flat with a printer from Brough, Cox & Dunn, an old established printing company in Belfast. He told me that any laminating his company did was sent by Red Star parcels to Celloglas in Cumbernauld, Scotland. It usually took four weeks to have the work returned. His exact words were ‘you need a warrant to get your work back from Celloglas!’ In the 1970s there were only solvent based hand-fed laminators available. Celloglas had plants in Cumbernauld, Leicester and Croydon, Glossyfilm was in Reading, and East Anglia Laminating was in Bury St Edmunds. In Leeds and perhaps East London there was Dispro, in Watford was Zodiac, and in Manchester was Manchester Laminators. That was about it in the 70s.”

The company started to build water-based laminators and over the years adapted its sales as laminating changed from primarily an outsourced trade service and moved in-house with the presses, and as new film, adhesive and digital print technologies were developed. “The market seems to change on what seems like a monthly basis,” says Gilmore. “From water-based film laminating machinery, we diversified into thermal film laminating machinery in sheet sizes 36x52cm all the way up to 155x205cm.

“Anti-set-off spray powder used to be the fly in the ointment of the laminator. Nowadays, digital toner is probably the biggest bugbear in terms of stick-ability, but that has been overcome for the most part by the use of digital film and/or heat and pressure.”

Family firm

Autobond today remains very much a family-run business. George passed away in 2011 and today John is managing director. John’s brother Alan was a director involved in the export side until he retired in 2014. John’s eldest son Connor worked at the company from 2005 to 2016 and did a lot to develop training videos and website marketing. Another son, Oran, runs Autobond Inc in the US. A third son, Harry, hopes to join the UK business next July. John’s wife Karen has worked at Autobond since 2005, having initially helped at Drupa 2000 and Ipex 2002.

The Gilmore family originated in Northern Ireland, where John took a business studies degree at Ulster University. “I was 23 in 1978, and there was a virtual civil war happening in Northern Ireland,” he says. “I’d already spent eight years at boarding school in Lancashire, so I felt very much at home in England.”

A key feature of all machines is the ability to keep up with sheetfed offset presses, so Autobond’s laminators need top quality feeders: “We used to use Autofeeds until they went bust,” says Gilmore. “We tried some others, then I wrote to Heidelberg in Germany in 1997/98 and said we were a family company and asked to buy their feed heads. They wrote back and said ‘don’t be silly.’ So I wrote again and said ‘In 58 countries the Heidelberg agent also sells Autobond laminators.’ They asked us to go and see them. The rest is history. Now the vast majority of our laminators go out with Heidelberg feeders. Once in a while we send one out with a Stahl feeder, for ultra-short-run work.” There’s also a reel-to-sheet cutting feed.

Today’s range includes water-based and thermal laminators and encapsulators, with various options for double-sided application, magnetic media handling, embossing, hot or cold foiling, inkjet high-build spot UV varnishing and overall flood varnishing.

“In the last 10 years we have diversified further into inkjet digital spot UV machinery to run inline with a film laminator,” says Gilmore. “More recently, we added gold and silver foiling to that line, so we have a unique selling point of being the only manufacturer in the world to make a machine that can film laminate, spot UV and foil inline.”

New competitors

Over the past four decades plenty of other laminator manufacturers have emerged. Gilmore sizes up the competition: “It seems that everyone and their grandmother now makes some form of thermal film laminator. Most have thin side plates and small diameter rollers. We have no competitors within the UK. We have some competition from companies in low-cost economies in the former communist Eastern Block – specifically Poland and the Czech Republic – and then, of course, China. However, Autobond is the only company in the world manufacturing film laminating machinery that runs at offset litho printing press speeds.”

The spot UV varnishing machine was introduced at Drupa 2012, having been largely developed inhouse by Carl Wardle, now head of R&D, with help from specialist developer JF Machines in Kettering. Its original purpose was to put a high gloss spot varnish onto matt laminated book covers – it can now print variably up to 100 microns high. “This has caused book printers worldwide, many of whom we already know on a first-name basis, to add inkjet spot UV to their existing Autobond laminators,” says Gilmore. “We compete with Scodix in Israel and MGI in France in this field. Both are from digital backgrounds and are therefore slow. We believe high productivity is key, which is why Clays in Suffolk and CPI in France, among others, have installed Autobond laminators with inline spot UVs in 2018.”

The SUV system runs inline downstream from the laminator and is currently supplied in 349, 488 and 696mm widths. It uses Xaar 1002 heads and can print at up to 60m/min. A standalone digital varnisher can also be ordered. The UV ink can be also be used as a digital spot adhesive for cold foil, with full UV curing after application. Alternatively a hot foil feeder can be used with digital toner print that’s heated by the laminating roller.

Gilmore has a project in the works for a full-colour inkjet, with a projected price well below anything on today’s market. “As we already film laminate, spot UV varnish and foil inline, it seems logical to try to add a CMYK inkjet engine and reel-fed unwind, prior to the laminator,” he says. “This may be the next step for our little company – to print, foil, laminate, spot UV, sheet and stack inline on one web-fed machine. In theory, we can achieve this on 36, 53, 74 and 105 wide machines.”

As a company so dependent on exporting, what does the prospect of Brexit hold? Gilmore hopes that it will actually come to pass. “As an exporter, it will be invaluable to us when we finally exit the EU,” he says. “We may see an increase in the cost of certain component parts, but the UK has been a nation of innovators and exporters for over two hundred years, so we are not unduly worried.” 

Star sellers

Gilmore highlights Autobond’s Mini 105 TH-SUV-F-S as the company’s current star product, saying “this is a B1 landscape film laminator, high-build spot UV and foiling line.” However, the biggest seller is the Mini 76 TH-SUV-S, he says. “It stands out because it produces 8,000sph B2, laminated and spot UV varnished in line.”

The thermal range includes Mini models in 36, 53, 74, 76 and 105 cm widths, some with film feeders for single-pass double-sided lamination, with speeds in the 45 to 60m/min range. Lamination to magnetic rubber is optional too. The fastest thermal laminator is the FL at 106cm-wide, intended for long-run, high-throughput work at up to 120m/min. The largest machine is the 155 VLF, for sheets up to 155x205cm and speeds up to 45m/min, using a Heidelberg Speedmaster 105 feeder. 

Edgemaster 76 is a dedicated machine for thick film flush cut or encapsulation (edge-seal) work.

Its current water-based model is the CT 105, for speeds up to 80m/min. 

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