Best of British: The sky’s not the limit for this exporting superstar

By Simon Eccles, Tuesday 28 May 2019

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Machines that convert large rolls of material into smaller more manageable rolls may not quite count as the unsung heroes of the industry, but they’re certainly vital and need both precision engineering and some of the latest tech. Who’d have thought that you could use Bluetooth in a slitter?

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Atlas Converting certainly counts as one of the Best of British manufacturers and has proved an export hero. The company sells into 80 countries and has twice won the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement. The UK accounts for only about 10% of its sales. 

Since 1976 it has been building specialised and sometimes enormous slitting and rewinding machinery for a wide range of flexible materials, mainly destined for use in the global flexible packaging industry. Continuous development and expansion has seen Atlas become a world leader in this market, with an installed base of more than 3,700 slitter-rewinders. There are more than 250 Atlas film slitters in production worldwide exceeding 6m in width and it also claims to have more 2m width slitter-rewinders in the global labelstock industry than any other manufacturer.

Atlas Converting is the official name of the company, but its logo gives equal billing to Titan, which was an established company it acquired in 1981. Titan actually preceded Atlas, having been set up in 1964. Atlas has always concentrated on machinery for ‘primary’ conversion, which includes the slitting and re-reeling of very wide rolls of films and similar materials as they are supplied by the manufacturing process. These can be very large indeed: its largest CW1040 model can handle webs up to 10.6m wide and operates at a bracing 1,500m/min. That’s 90kph. 

Titan machines have always been for ‘secondary’ conversion, which takes the primary rolls and further slits and re-reels them, typically at the end of a flexo label or packaging press. Titan machines range from anything between 2.5m and smaller widths, with speeds from 400 to 1,000m/min. As well as being smaller, Titan machines also tend to incorporate more automation, which helps with changeovers for the shorter runs.

Both can provide bespoke solutions for automated roll handling systems, with turnkey systems available, including conveying and robotic handling equipment. “We are constantly adapting and modifying our machines to be ahead of the market with such initiatives as Industry 4.0,” says sales and marketing director Barrie Homewood. 

History of innovation

As well as Titan, Atlas acquired the Manchester-based firms General Vacuum Equipment, which developed vacuum coating technology, and Hurley Moate Engineering, which made winding/unwinding equipment.

In 1997, the decision was taken to sell Atlas to the Finnish Valmet Corporation, which wanted a flexible materials division. After also acquiring some Italian flexible film machinery companies it merged with another Finnish company to form Metso Corporation. This period lasted until 2004 when Metso was acquired by Bobst, the Swiss maker of packaging printing and finishing machinery, which was expanding rapidly at the time. 

Atlas did well under Bobst for four years, but the financial crisis of 2008 saw the group decide to sell off some non-core businesses. Atlas returned to private ownership through an equitable management buy-out by a group of individuals operating within the business. Today there are four owner-directors. 

“Atlas Converting was one of the pioneers of the converting industry, renowned for being first to market with innovations that allow our customers to increase productivity, reduce downtime and improve their profitability,” says Homewood.

“From day one, Atlas has worked very closely with its customers; the engineers at Atlas Converting Equipment listened and responded to the demands of the market, which in turn led to a continual evolution of the product ranges to meet the changing needs of the marketplace, including the first slitter-rewinder for a 10m web operating at 1,500 metres per minute and the adoption of Bluetooth control of rewind arms to improve reliability.

“Over the years, these and other innovations have filtered across the range of Atlas and Titan machines meaning that we have a history in slitting and rewinding that not only exceeds that of nearly all of our competitors but a history of responding to the ever changing needs of our customers and the markets and leveraging the innovations that come from these requirements into our future products.”

Design, engineering and manufacturing are obviously the vital centre of Atlas’ business, but a development in admin has also helped the whole business. In 2015 it implemented an advanced enterprise resource planning (ERP) system which 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.

The data delivered by the ERP allows in-depth business analysis and reveals key performance indicators (KPIs), which Atlas has been using to inform the development of new products, while furthering its relationships with clients. Atlas has developed a product configuring application, that lets customers choose their own specification of machine, with automatically generated quotations. If this progresses to an order, the system specifies a ‘configured-to-order’ (CTO) machine, automatically generating bills of materials and routings of the order that are passed to the purchasing and operations teams.

Who’s in charge?

Today, Atlas employs about 150 people at its purpose-built production site in Kempston, near Bedford. All the machines are designed and assembled there, though fabrication of components is outsourced, including the carbon fibre rolls used in the widest machines to keep weight down. There are also sales, service and customer support operations based in China, India and the US. 

Chairman is Steve Darlington, who was one of the founder shareholders of Atlas in the management buyout. His original background was in corporate finance, having qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Deloitte. However he worked in general management and finance for a number of businesses, including a period of managing director of printing and finishing machinery manufacturer Bobst UK. 

Alan Johnson is managing director. He first joined 1990 at Atlas in Hurley Moate, designing, installing and commissioning its range of non-stop unwind and rewind systems. In 2000 he moved to Bedfordshire to take over the management of the Titan business. During this time he oversaw the design and launch of the SR7, SR8 and ER610 models. He was appointed managing director of Atlas Converting Equipment in 2006 and is one of four current owner/directors. 

Machinery projects and building are led by Phil Coleman, head of engineering, who has always worked in R&D for industries ranging from construction to aerospace; and Stewart Gedrim, operations manager, who has manufacturing engineer with nearly 40 years’ experience in production and operations.

Barrie Homewood started his career as a field service technician in the newspaper sector, then moved into sales for web offset newspaper presses and handling machinery. He met Alan Johnson when he was managing director of Atlas Hurley Moate and after a few years was recruited as a regional sales manager for the Titan range. He’s now worldwide sales and marketing director for the whole company. 

What does the company look for when hiring? “People who think outside the box yet have unrivalled experience in the converting/slitter and rewinder industry,” says Homewood. 


Market challenges

Atlas has identified four main challenges currently facing converters. 

Smart labels Interactive (RFID), active (O2 scavenging) or indicator (tamper-evident, sunlight or time) labels that provide feedback to processors or end-users. “These require special slitting processing and careful handling due to their high value. Although they’re currently processed on narrow-web or sheetfed applications, Atlas Converting will be ready as production scales up,” says Homewood.

Interconnectivity Automation or Industry 4.0 will standardise machines sharing information from upstream and downstream processes. This should increase efficiencies of the complete manufacturing process.

To this end Atlas is focusing on speed and solution-based technologies to keep ahead of the upstream processes. “This means we could be supplying a slitting machine that incorporates additional equipment, to provide an integrated turnkey offering,” says Homewood.

Continuous monitoring All Titan machines have high-speed VPN (virtual private network) connections as standard to allow remote servicing. “But as transmission speeds continue to increase, with the addition of some sensing equipment, the company is able to monitor machine running conditions in real time. This allows failures to be predicted before they happen, providing customers with the necessary warnings and guidance to resolve the issues,” says Homewood. 

Artificial intelligence Artificial intelligence is another aspect of industry 4.0, making use of data analytics. “In the near future, it will be possible for machines to start learning how to best handle different materials and make process changes automatically,” says Homewood. “This will increase efficiency and reduce error rates even further, while addressing skills shortages by removing the need for highly-experienced operators.”

The challenges are guiding Atlas’ current development efforts, also helped by the analysis gained from the ERP system. So, what’s next on the list? “A new compact turret slitter rewinder is to be launched in October at the K Show in Dusseldorf,” says Homewood.

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