The group had been intending to expand its printing operation into an adjacent additional 4,200sqm unit, but instead has entered an entirely new business area with a £1.8m investment in new mask making equipment from Diecut Global and the implementation of clean room manufacturing to medical standards.
“We already knew Steve at Diecut Global, and decided to step up to the challenge as we were in a position to do it, explained director James Kinsella.
“We had originally planned to expand our exhibition range, but that can wait at the moment.”
Setting up the new operation has taken just eight weeks.
Steve Waterhouse, managing director at Diecut Global, said his business had diversified into supplying mask-making equipment in a short-time frame, “without any government support or funding to step up in a national emergency”.
“At a time where all anybody has spoken about is bringing control back to the UK, we have done this, so we are not reliant on any other countries and are also helping our economy bounce back,” Waterhouse said.
Bluetree has installed two DCG twin-channel mask making lines at its Wath Upon Dearne site, and has space for another should it be required.
It is manufacturing disposable surgical-type IIR masks under the brand name OBISK. The masks are made up of three layers, provide bacterial filtration of 98% and are splash resistant.
The £42m, 350-plus staff business will go into 24/7 production next week, and is selling the masks on a monthly subscription or contract basis, targeting customers with ongoing requirements.
It has the capacity to produce 1.4m masks a week from mid-June, and this could grow to 20m per week by September if demand builds up.
“We have some customers lined up already, and our initial targets are dental and veterinary businesses, as well as NHS Trusts. We are taking a view that if we work with the right type of people long-term it will be a sustainable business,” Kinsella added.
Last week it was reported that some dentists may struggle to reopen due to a shortage of PPE, including masks.
Bluetree is also poised to begin making the crucial melt-blown material used for the mask’s filter layer itself. The special substrate is currently in short supply worldwide.
“There is only one manufacturer in the UK and the government has taken all that supply. So we have also invested in a machine to make that filter material as well,” Kinsella stated.
That equipment will arrive on 22 June.
“When it arrives then all the elements will be made in the UK. We are sourcing the outer layer material from Scotland, and the elastic and wire from different parts of the UK.”
The IIR masks are being sold via Bluetree’s new ‘Mask Box’ business, with standard online order quantities varying from 25 to 1,000 masks per month, and a minimum three month subscription period. It can also handle larger volumes, if required.
Around 35 staff have been brought back from furlough to be retrained on the Mask Box operation so far, Kinsella said.
“We are working out how many people we will need as we ramp up production. We have learned so much setting this up, from clean room standards and all the regulations around that, and the making of medical products,” Kinsella said.
He also said that by happy accident one of the firm’s employees was also a biomedical scientist, which had been a huge help in dealing with all the regulations.
Bluetree’s commercial print side is currently operating at about 50% of normal capacity, with the work mix “very different” producing back-to-work kits for small businesses.
“It has been interesting talking to the team about the role print is playing in getting people back to work. It’s been absolutely incredible,” Kinsella added.
Bluetree Group managing director Adam Carnell (pictured, above left with Kinsella) commented: “We are still operating our business-as-usual product lines, dedicating a separate task force to this project, but aim to make mask production a sustainable line of business for the foreseeable future to help protect the nation.”
The group operates the Route 1 Print and Instantprint online printing brands.