A firm for all seasons

R&D/Leverage Europe Product Solutions Lab

R&D/Leverage’s Product Solutions Lab has overcome Covid-19 restrictions, lockdowns and travel constraints to maintain crucial services to converters and brand owners alike throughout the pandemic.

R&D/Leverage’s Product Solutions Lab (PSL) in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, England, has grown hugely since it was first established, 15 years ago. It has proved to be very popular with converters and brand owners alike and seen demand for its services rise so much that its floor space has pretty much trebled. It now occupies three adjacent units on the industrial estate to the north of Nottingham, in England’s East Midlands region. PETplanet Insider visited the PSL when it was officially extended into its second unit, in 2016; Covid-19 travel restrictions ruled that out this time, so we spoke online.

Alan Tolley, Managing Director of
R&D/Leverage Europe

“We have massively expanded, and we now have nine moulding machines in there,” said Alan Tolley, Managing Director of R&D/Leverage Europe. The machines – eight Nissei ASB models, complemented by an Aoki 250LL-75S – are the same standard and often the same range as converters and brand owners themselves use for production. The company’s speciality is single step preform and stretch blow moulding, which does away with preform transportation, eliminating even the slight risk of scuffing in transit and ensuring a high quality, glasslike finish to bottles. The company’s focus is particularly on brands whose packaging needs are for very high quality, high standard of finish packaging.

Building capability

“We identified a major hole in the market,” says Steve Gough, Technical manager, R&D/Leverage Europe. “We started to build a relationship with Brand Owners. We could show them what our capabilities are and position ourselves as the go-to people for them, for testing and development.”

It has been a successful strategy. Over the past six years, close relationships with leading brands have been built, to the point where they come to R&D to develop a project under consideration, in the first place. The PSL offers single cavity pilot tooling for product development, material trials, colour trial and in-house training. This allows a sampling program for a customer’s product that includes inspection of samples from its injection stretch blow moulding lab.

“We are now approached for guidance on how to design the product, what machine to put it on, what platform, what cavitation, and so on,” says Steve. The PSL is a key part of that development; it demonstrates that R&D/Leverage has world-class, market leading capability.

“These brand owners have all visited our facility and seen our equipment, capacity and expertise,” he continues. “They see our moulding machines, which give us a lot of flexibility: we have different machines for different cavitations, outputs, sizes and finishes. We can demonstrate single cavity development tools and small and large production tool qualification.”

R&D/Leverage’s Product Solutions Lab (PSL) in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, England,
has grown hugely since it was established 15 years ago.

Testing, analysis and quality assurance

It’s not just physical output. The PSL is a laboratory, which implies testing and analysis – indeed, it is an important element of the offer.

“For the Brand Owners, they want to do a lot of colour trials, developments to get tight corner radii, weight specifications, top load specifications and so on – we can do all of that, right here, on site,” he says. But R&D/Leverage is not a company to rest on its laurels. It has been expanding the PSL capacity, as well its physical size. “As brand owners have come and visited, we identified areas that we needed to improve and build on, in order to support them even better. So, we expanded and upgraded our QA (quality assurance) facility to the point where it is really, now, the state of the art; it is the best you will see in our industry, anywhere.”

In order to position itself as the world leader in its field, R&D/Leverage purchased some quite bespoke QA equipment for measuring plastic bottles, which provides highly accurate dimensional reports and is – crucially – non-contact, which en-ables it to deliver results very quickly. The latest iteration of the equipment was designed with input from R&D, after it worked with the manufacturing company to ensure that it met its particular needs. It raises the industry bar higher.

Investing in equivalent machinery

R&D/Leverage also identified the equipment that the brand owners themselves were using to undertake testing back at their own premises, once the samples had been supplied. The clients would be carrying out drop tests, putting them in temperature chambers, performing torque tests on the caps, and so on. The company bought the same sort of equipment as its customers use, enabling it to present itself as a one-stop shop and to contract the testing to R&D, as well.

“The equipment within our QA facility allows R&D’s customers to validate bottles during the development process, to identify any changes that may be required at an early stage, and thus to speed up approval. Some of our equipment provides capability previously unknown to some of our customers and has set the standards for future QA procedures and requirements,” Steve says.

What R&D/Leverage has put in place is a one stop shop. It can develop the tool and the product, to a position where the client is happy with both the aesthetics of it – and it goes further.

A look inside the PSL

Cutting development time

The company can complete all the dimensional checks, top load, burst tests, volume checks, torques testing, wall thicknesses – in short, the whole range of tests.

“With an almost approved product, there might be some longer-term checks that they have to do, where they need to put it in a temperature chamber for three months or something like that, but 99 per cent of the validation procedures are completed and ticked off, here at our PSL,” says Alan Tolley. “We can test mould platforms that we manufacture through our PSL. “The attraction to the customers is potentially massive reductions in development time.

“Customers want their moulds tested; they want to have some idea at the tool maker’s stage. Having this capacity in-house saves time on shipping samples back and fore and on external validation. We can, very often, receive immediate approval to finish a production tool, shaving weeks or even months from the overall project time. It’s a full turnkey offer,” he continues. “We save them from jeopardising their production plans. We ship the moulds out to them, with all validations already completed and recorded, with all the supporting documentation. By the time the mould gets to them the product is already approved and they’re up and running, immediately.”

R&D/Leverage had got used to hosting four or five visits a week to the PSL, by both brand owners and converters, from Russia, South Africa, South-East Asia and all over the world. For customers new to the company, it has served as an outstanding introduction to R&D’s testing capability, encouraging them to come back again and again to use its extensive and highly rated service.

Overcoming Covid-19

Then came Sars-CoV-2 ID-19, better known as Covid, which stopped all travel – especially international travel – dead in its tracks.

Customer visits to the PSL went down from several each week to just one every few months. For many companies, that would have meant severely curtailing or even shutting down operations altogether. While it was unexpected and could not have been planned for, it turned out that the investment in comprehensive design, prototype, testing and validation equipment made it perfectly suited to the ‘new normal’.

R&D/Leverage’s ability to fully complete all design and development, prototyping, testing and to undertake full QA during lockdown, and to send comprehensive reports to convertors and brand owners, with complete confidence that the QA control methods are of an approved standard, served both R&D and its customers very well.

“Having all of the inspection equipment, all of the technical knowhow and the machines, has really been a big boost for us. Last year was a record breaking year,” says Alan. “Without having the complete cycle to offer, we would have been struggling, sending samples out, waiting a week or two for them to come back, redrafting, trying again – we have, instead, been able to do everything here and deliver complete solutions. We have actually become the customers’ trusted partner. They know they can give us the order, we will design it and we will manufacture, whether that is a one cavity pilot tool or a production tool. We will lead through all the qualifications, and then send the samples to them. With one customer in particular, over the last 15 months, it has worked very well for both sides.”

Rising to the occasion

Ultimately, there is no substitute for the depth of understanding that comes from getting to know each other face to face: it is how long-term partnerships are built. What the Covid situation has demonstrated is that R&D/Leverage is the firm for all seasons, equipped to deal with the unexpected – in whatever form it takes – and to deliver.
The start of the pandemic saw the company get a lot of orders for sanitiser and handwash bottles but regular business reasserted itself fairly quickly, and it received a huge number of orders for cosmetics. R&D carried a lot of projects single handedly, using zoom calls and such like to set the scene, bring the brand owners and the converters together and essentially to drive whole projects. The company won respect with the agility of its response and its willingness to go the extra mile to allow the customers to keep everything on track and launch several new product ranges.

“Without our capability, it would have just been absolutely impossible. As the uses and demand increase for R&D/Leverage’s PSL, we see more ways that our customers view us as a complete solution provider, rather as a commodity tooling supplier,” Steve Gough concludes.

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