Something is stirring in the Valleys. More than a decade after the last printing press was removed, the vast factory at Ystrad Mynach, which was the St Ives Caerphilly web offset plant, is echoing again to the sound of printing presses. These are not the huge web presses printing magazines and catalogues, but currently two digital and one offset press printing cartons. And the factory is also home to 22 machines producing millions of paper straws a day.
The paper aspect is important. Transcend is a company that places sustainability and the three Rs of Sustainability: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to the fore. It is absolutely fundamental to its ethos. The home page of its website features a plastic bag submerged in the ocean with the caption “No time to waste”.
Transcend Packaging only moved onto the site in June last year with an order for an HP Indigo 30000, its press configured for carton printing. It has been joined by a KBA-Planeta Rapida 105 and by an Indigo 12000. All are dwarfed in the hanger like plant. At one end is the production equipment to print, slit and wind all manner of paper drinking straws, the largest facility of its kind in Europe and which has already featured on peak time television when BBC’s One Show visited to report on MacDonalds’ switch to paper straws.
The printing presses, die cutting platen, tray erector, window patching and carton gluing lines are surrounded by oceans of space. However, every square inch of that space is spoken for: here will be a large format Size 6 KBA, a carton glueing and platen specifically for digital production and here equipment to make paper cups. A further bank of paper straw making machines completes the immediate ambitions.
Upstairs largely empty offices will increasingly be allocated to CSRs, software staff and other admin functions. With 87 staff at the moment, the schedule points to 210 employed by 2020. This is the number employed when the plant was in the hands of St Ives and is the number that the company has agreed with the Welsh local authorities.
By then managing director Lorenzo Angelucci will have Transcend firmly on the map. He left Italy 17 years ago to join Seda in the UK at a small factory in Princes Risborough on the edge of the Chilterns. He moved the packaging company to a much larger factory in South Wales. This did well and the reward was to be appointed to head the US operation in Chicago. After three years his young family had not settled in the US and Angelucci was pining for the Valleys. “My family missed Wales,” he says. “It was the right time to come back to Europe and to start a new company that would offer something new, something innovative and be centred on sustainability.”
The plan was put together to set up the most sustainable packaging company possible, calling on those he trusted to join the team. Channing Nuss, communications director and an American, and Mark Varney as sales director, complete the executive team. “I thought ‘who was the most crazy person I know that would help start up a company at the time of Brexit uncertainty?’ I immediately thought of Mark Varney.”
Other management and staff have joined from Seda and especially from the closed Essentra carton plant in Newport. This has been a stroke of good fortune for the business. Not only did this deliver experienced production staff, but also account handlers and the accounts they handled.
While welcome, the strategy has been about short runs, fast turnarounds and sustainability by cutting waste and use of recycled materials wherever possible. “We have a customer who wanted 3,000 cartons by Friday. We received the artwork on Wednesday evening at 6pm and the cartons were ready to go out the next day,” says Varney.
This will drive a lot of volume, but is step one. Transcend wants to use recyclable materials to replace non recyclable plastics. Hence it will eschew plastic laminates in paper cups and other products that need to stay dry for long periods. There is a cardboard ice bucket which does not go soggy or leak for the duration of a wedding or longer event.
The same barrier technology has all manner of applications. There is a tent in one of the rooms off the foyer. It is a solid piece of engineering, pieces of board locking together to create the structure’s bases, sides, entrance and roof – more a people kennel than tent perhaps.
Something like this can address a real problem. There is an application in disaster zones where there can be a pressing need for temporary accommodation. More to the point there is an application across the many festivals that have mushroomed across the UK leaving abandoned popup tents in their wake. With a paperboard tent, the organisers turn the hundreds of thousands of pounds or more spent clearing up after the event into an income stream. Festival goers could book and be allocated a tent, which has a sponsor’s branding or is colour coded to help navigation around a vast site. And each tent is fully recyclable unlike those that fill the bins.
Neither Nuss nor Varney can recall exactly how a brainstorming session arrived at the tent concept, but it is part of the no holds barred approach that Transcend towards sustainability is taking. There are no sacred cows to protect, just good ideas to support and ideas to develop.
More prosaically there is a project to replace the plastic used in a paper tissue box with something recyclable, yoghurt pots with no plastic and straws. Billions of straws. The equipment to date has come from China, modified to strengthen some components and improve others, but Angelucci says that he has been in discussions with a company in Bologna about specifications for a bespoke machine.
There are straws of all sizes, from a few millimetres to a metre long; there are different colours; there are different core sizes and different types of paper used. There are straws sitting in jars of liquid to monitor how long they last and keep their strength. There are straws for different applications with highly specific requirements. This includes straws for use in hospitals. And there are tests on various ways to create the U-bend straws which are attached to the side of individual drinks cartons. Transcend believes it has worked out how to do this successfully and this straw will reach the market at the start of this year.
The mother roll of material can be printed on a simple flexo press before being slit into the child rolls. These are unwound and intertwined, three ribbons to a straw, around a mandible of the relevant dimensions for each straw. The glues used to hold the straw in one piece are carefully chosen for each type of straw. One the tube has been created the straw is cut down by rotary knives spaced for the required length.
The straws then end up in boxes ready for the wholesalers or, in the case of McDonald’s, are individually wrapped before arriving in the box for shipping to the restaurant chain.
It is McDonald’s, however, that has put the young company on the map. Angelucci from previous roles knows the top man in the burger chain and convinced him to trust a start up business. Transcend, along with long standing MacDonald’s supplier Delta Packaging, won the contract. And Transcend was up and away.
“There are four pillars to the business,” Angelucci explains. “Essentra left some customers behind and these wanted continuity which we could provide with the same contacts and the same type of press. The know-how of their packaging is protected.
“Secondly, the straws. I had already bought one machine when starting to talk to MacDonald’s. He was looking for a local provider. The award of that contract got our name out. Now the EU is planning to ban plastic straws and Nestlé has also announced it is banning the use of plastic.
“The use of plastic is under widespread pressure. There will be a ban on the use of laminated paper cups unless these are compostable. So far even in Germany only 30% of plastic used is recycled, so we need an infrastructure for plastics which means that compostable must be part of the answer. There needs to be more R&D because this is where customers want to be.
“Then there is the digital print opportunity. This is not commoditised printing which the big groups are very good at. They have swallowed up many mid sized businesses which has meant a loss of flexibility for customers and they have been forced in the commodity direction.”
Transcend first installed an HP Indigo 30000, its dedicated digital press for carton production using a post printer coater to protect the ink and to give the handling characteristics that brands want. The press is also the first in the UK to work with food safe consumables and meet BRC requirements for food packaging.
It was quickly joined by another B2 press. “We added the 12000 when we started to fill the 30000,” says Varney. “We can produce 97% of PMS colours through four-colour plus OGV printing, four-colour printing achieves 67%. We can also print white and can print on any substrate which is either preprimed or which we can prime inline. On the 12000 we can print on the reverse of the board.”
Both machines are calibrated to run to meet Fogra 39L specifications and will also match output on the KBA Rapida 105 which, despite being a 20-year-old press sourced from the Ukraine, gleams on the other side of the press hall.
One opportunity is printing a sample run to meet an immediate requirement on the Indigos and as longer runs are needed the job will switch to the litho press with no change in quality. Litho requires makeready sheets: digital simply does not. “If we print 1,000 sheets, we can sell 1,000 sheets. There is no makeready; no risk of ghosting because the image is new every time.”
What is currently lacking is the digitally focused finishing to match the press output, but this will follow. Likewise enhancement technology for varnishing. There is a window patching machine and the tray erector will work from print on either technology.
“We are the largest digital printer of cartons in the UK with two presses, both running with food safe inks, and the largest producer of paper straws in Europe,” says Angelucci. “Traditional print simply cannot handle the jobs we take on. We wanted to do the stuff that others cannot. We could not be ‘just another packaging business’.”
As a start up that, as Varney puts it, “aims to disrupt the packaging market through the use of new technology”, Transcend might have had difficulty convincing customers to trust the company. Angelucci comes with the respect and connections that mean that is far from a problem, so Transcend is pushing at an open door.
Brands want to print in smaller numbers for promotional tie ins, for product launches, to save on waste and they need to show that every aspect of their supply chain, print included, is both transparent and sustainable. Nobody is going to launch a major product that demands the use of plastic packaging in 2019.
The company knows it cannot achieve everything in-house. It is working with Swanline on selection of materials, is looking at label suppliers able to work with water based inks and adhesives and it is running all manner of tests on new materials and new ways of doing things. It has been running trials with coatings based around seaweed, for example.
“The big groups cannot do this,” says Varney. “It’s too disruptive to their production. But we can be running something new or something a customer wants within days.”
Speed is going to be crucial to the offer. “Marketing agencies will call us up wanting 120 digitally printed samples by 12 o’clock tomorrow and we can do that,” says Angelucci.
His timing so far has been impeccable. The company caught the wave of interest in sustainability kicked off by Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series. This chimed with McDonald’s decision to ditch the plastic straw and the closure of Essentra’s Newport carton business. “We opened the company at the right time,” he says.
The positioning of the business works very well for the Welsh government which has supported the business in these early days. The staff are also happy to be working for a business that is trying to do some good for the planet. University students that have come as part of their course want to stay for the same reasons.
Currently there are 87 on the payroll (though at the rate of recruitment this is probably out of date) with a commitment to increase this to around 200 by 2021. By then there will be more presses, more production machinery, the paper cups product in full flow and more straws.
“The paper straw is an iconic item that simply everybody wants. They have had to be imported from China, but are lacking in quality. There are a handful of European producers, but it is not easy. One company that set up after Blue Planet called us to ask if we wanted the machines because he couldn’t make it work,” says Angelucci.
But is the humble straw that far from breaking the back of any camels is creating the foundations for a business with a new focus on sustainability and flexibiliy. Most carton businesses have invested to bring down the unit cost by focusing on volume. Transcend is embodying different principles and that is appealing.
“We are already talking to a potential partner in Europe,” Angelucci says, “and we are aiming to set up a company in North America by the end of this year. We want to transfer the model that we ave here, not to become another large group.
“We are getting calls from people that want to join us, that want to invest in us. For the moment we are in that investment phase. And is because it is the paper straw that gets us through the door.”
By Gareth Ward
Paper straws of all kinds are produced for the wholesale trade as well as for direct customers. This investment led to the company winning a contract for McDonalds and being featured on TV's The One Show.
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