Surfing the pandemic wave

R&D/Leverage survived the Covid-19 pandemic and even prospered, with a record surge in sales of its injection stretch blow moulding tooling and no Covid-related shutdown of its factory or offices. It had the foresight to buy an adjacent factory unit when it came available, in 2020, in order to be prepared for the future. Equipment was being moved in on the very day that Ruari McCallion, PETplanet Insider Editor-at-Large, visited the facility near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, and renewed his acquaintance with MD Alan Tolley and the company staff.

March 02, 2022
We met:
Mr Alan Tolley, Managing Director
Mr Bob Schiavone, Global Marketing Director (by phone)
Mr Craig Carrington, Sales Manager

It’s always a pleasure to visit Alan Tolley and the R&D/Leverage team. They are welcoming and hospitable and there is always some interesting news to discuss. It has been four years since we were last at the company’s UK facility in Sutton-in-Ashfield, near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. It was impossible to miss a unit sporting obviously new R&D/Leverage signage and with a big truck backed up to it.

Alan Tolley, Managing Director at R&D/Leverage

“The unit came up for sale in 2020”, said Alan Tolley, managing director of R&D/Leverage in the UK. “We invested it to future-proof the company. We knew we would need more space, fairly soon, and we didn’t want to go looking for another complete site, or another factory a few miles away. It extends to about 12,500 square feet (1,160 m2) and takes our total area now up to 60,000 square feet (5,600 m2), including mezzanine and offices. We’re just putting in equipment now. That’s what the truck is here for.”

Investment is essential

Investment is an ongoing theme at R&D/Leverage. My first visit, eight years ago, was for the official opening of its Product Solutions Laboratory (PSL), which is equipped with the latest equipment, such as its customer base uses, and enables the company to offer them a one-stop shop for all aspects of design, prototyping, testing and initial runs. It was transformational; there is still possibly nothing else like it in the world – at least, nothing else offered by a toolmaking company. The investment has allowed R&D to service its customers even better than before, with two or three customer companies visiting every week, until the Covid-19 pandemic and all its restrictions on travel. The last two years have seen only three visits in total but that hadn’t stopped the company’s relentless progress. It had a bumper year in 2020 and didn’t lose a single day through enforced shutdown.

“In February 2020, we started get a lot of orders and it went manic in the next few months. We had two times the expected level of orders in March and April, about the same in May and three times normal in June,” Alan said. “The demand was for sanitisers, disinfectant, liquid soap dispensers and all that but primarily for sanitiser dispensers. Overall, orders in 2020 were 45% higher than in 2019. Now, that was exceptional and we didn’t expect it to be repeated in 2021. But that was a good year too; we were about 11% up on 2019.”

Covid-19: no down days

Key to the successful navigation of the pandemic was the fact that R&D/Leverage UK didn’t have any down days, unlike competitors overseas, who shut down for months at a time. European sales fell, by about 10% but that was more than offset by sales to the Rest of the World, which more than doubled and even exceeded UK numbers. Europe remains the company’s biggest market.

Matching the customer experience

Fortunately, R&D/Leverage’s financial position remains very stable and it has a growing presence across the world. The strategic decision it took, 15 years ago, to invest in customer-matching machinery has paid off, very well. It now has nine machines in the PSL, none of which is more than five years old. Alan is animated whenever he talks about it. Our tour included a visit to the inspection and quality assurance laboratory, which has seen an upgrade and extension to its range of equipment. It has sold to customers in very cold countries – e.g, Russia and Poland – and very hot ones, such as Saudi Arabia and SE Asia. The quality assurance equipment can test bottles to temperatures as low as minus 40 and as high as 50 degrees Celsius. It’s a measure of how committed R&D/Leverage is to investment and upgrading that one of the pieces of equipment was new since Alan had last visited the room, just a few days before! Ancillary equipment includes laser etching of part numbers, for tracking and tracing of moulds and parts, and laser welding for repairs. Each of the moulds being worked on had been polished to a mirror finish.

On the floor of the PSL, Alan pointed out two new five-axis GF machines; one a seven-pallet unit, the other a twin. The tour also took in a Studer S31 grinding machine, a complete assembly area for the company’s own hot runners, a Mollart deep hole borer and – I couldn’t help noticing – a couple of Bridgeport milling machines. A familiar sight over many years but, in some ways, incongruous in the middle of so much that is new and advanced.

Investing in the future

“We have a really strong apprenticeship training programme. We try to bring in at least two new apprentices each year. We keep the Bridgeport operating because I like the newcomers to understand what the processes involve, before they go on to learn about CNC equipment,” Alan explained. “I go back to when I was just out of school and I was given the chance to be an apprentice. My career has been built on that opportunity so I am more than happy to give something back.” It is noticeable that the workforce has a good age spread. We stopped to have a brief chat with two current apprentices – one in his second year, one a little older – and an operative who was working with them, who was only a few years older, himself. But there are also more experienced hands, at various places on the shop floor.

Invaluable experience

Alan himself will have reached a remarkable milestone by September 2022: 55 years in the plastics industry. That experience shows and has informed the development of R&D/Leverage over the past 15 years, especially. The achievements of the company have not gone unnoticed by its sister organisation in the USA.

Robert Schiavone, Global Marketing Director

“I am really proud of what the UK team has done over the years, to grow that Product Solutions Lab and to grow in the markets they have been dealing with,” said Bob Schiavone, R&D/Leverage Global Marketing Director, who had got up very early to speak to us on the phone from his base in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, USA. “When we are talking about challenges in plastics, R&D/Leverage UK is well equipped to handle them. They have definitely built the ultimate service for the industry, in the way they can build a tool, validate it, prototype it, test it and be with you every step of the way.” He obviously has an interest but his enthusiasm for R&D/Leverage UK is both infectious and sincere.

“When we’re talking about dealing with what’s coming down the pipe, with so many different materials, we may have to test so many different parameters and design changes, a lot of companies simply don’t have what they have over there, in terms of capabilities.”

Fighting back for plastics

When it comes to the challenges, Bob holds some very strong views on the perceived demonisation of plastics and what their true benefits are.

“When it comes to recycling, PET is designed to be recycled. It is less environmentally damaging than aluminium or glass; it uses less energy to be recycled,” he said. “The problem in the plastics industry is recycling. In both the UK and USA, we have been sending overseas, things we can’t recycle. If you compare PET to aluminium, PET generates 60% less greenhouse gases, uses 31% less energy and produces 29% less solid waste, so why not fix the recycling? Instead of addressing that issue, we are talking about banning plastics.”

Bob is very clear that plastics should have a strong future, if the recycling infrastructure is put in place. Alan is equally clear that R&D/Leverage and its Product Solutions Laboratory is very much part of that future. Whatever the customers are using, R&D/Leverage invests in the same machinery in order to deliver the solution.

It was a pleasure to visit again and I am already looking forward to the next opportunity.

Visit R&D/Leverage