Bluetree Group – From Printing to PPE
We learn how a small printing business became a leading provider of PPE.
instantprint was founded in 2009, by Adam & James, straight out of university. Their plan was simple – they had found a niche in the market, and they were going to make the most of it.
The main aim was to create an easier process to buy and commission print, especially for small businesses,” explains Adam Carnell, Managing Director of the company. “We saw some great growth figures for a start-up business in the early years, and there came a point where we realised, we’d need bigger resources to push that.”
Fortunately, this is when they were approached by Bluetree Group in 2012. From there, the company has grown to become the UK’s leading online printer, serving both smaller micro-businesses through instantprint while also drawing 50% of their business from their trade brand, Route 1 Print. This brand has built a name for itself through the use of cutting-edge technology, such as the first B1 Digital Embellishment Press used by a printer in the UK, installed by Konica Minolta UK.
“Through that merge, we were able to implement robust quality management processes into the business. By the back end of 2019, we were dispensing 20,000 to 25,000 jobs a week, with 100 million printed items a month,” Carnell recalls.
Rising to the Challenge
It was at this point that the COVID-19 crisis hit, and the pandemic would have a fundamental and lasting effect on the direction of the company.
“A lot of our business was focused on producing marketing materials for other businesses, so when COVID-19 hit it had a huge impact on the number of orders we had coming in,” Carnell tells us. “Early on in that process we had a look at ourselves and said, to get through this, we’ll have to change. A number of options were available to us, including offering a more flexible service in packaging. So, although that is still in this same sphere, custom packaging was very different from what we usually do internally. Then, by fluke, one of our suppliers looked at importing this mask-making equipment from a known supplier of wares, and that’s where we got the idea of moving into surgical masks.”
However, for Bluetree Group, this wasn’t simply a stopgap measure until things “went back to normal”.
“From the start, we decided if we were going to succeed in turning this from a short-term project into a long-term part of the business, we’d have to make sure we delivered the highest quality masks out there with the consistency of supply,” Carnell explains. “Everything on that side of the business, from the supply chain, machine parts to training programmes, has been selected carefully.”
A Learning Curve
As well as providing a way to help with the crisis and keep the business going, the move over to manufacturing face masks has been a huge confidence booster for Bluetree Group’s team.
“For a lot of people, it’s been a very anxious time, especially as we’ve been very open about the numbers we’ve been putting out, including order intake,” Carnell acknowledges. “It means a lot of people in the business are encouraged just to know we’re coming out of this with a more diversified offering and a more resilient and robust response to this COVID challenge.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the shift over to making masks has been an easy one.
“There’s been a huge amount of compliance to make sure we’re fully on top of it and we’ve really built our knowledge base in that area. We have several certifications and a good understanding of the processes in our existing business. It was just understanding the standard we had to build these masks to,” Carnell tells us. “Without a doubt, the biggest challenge has been making sure we had a clean and sterile environment to make the products in; from having positive air pressure in the building, all the way through to the cleaning regimes we need to have implemented.”
Moving from printing to mask manufacturing has brought challenges for the staff as well.
“It’s been a learning curve!” Carnell admits. “The machines have come directly from China, so even basic things like getting hold of English instruction manuals has been difficult. We put our engineering teams onto the machine to understand and learn about them and develop our own training course. We’ve been trying to understand them and get the machines up to our level of safety requirements, so that’s been interesting. The masks we’re producing, nobody else has been producing in the UK for a while. All the skill sets, the understanding, we’ve had to pick up and learn in a very short timescale.”
However, while obviously there has been necessary adaption, there have been surprising synergies at the same time.
“From our operators’ point of view, the fundamentals are similar to the print side of the business,” Carnell points out. “On the print side, we have a lot of machines set up to run a continuous reel of paper. The mask machines run a continuous reel of fabric so there are lots of similarities and the cutting mechanisms are virtually identical.”
Looking forward, Carnell sees a wide number of opportunities for this new side of the business, even as the print side picks up again.
“To start with, the idea of us moving into the surgical masks space was because we felt we had huge opportunities to sell retail-ready kits throughout our customer base,” he says. “You can imagine a free-standing display unit, which we can produce inhouse, loaded with masks to go into a retail environment. We thought we’d also be supplying small retailers, a lot who already buy directly from us on the print side. Plans, however, have evolved and we are proud to say that we are now supplying the NHS with our face masks.”
Bluetree Group is already seeing impressive levels of demand.
“If I’m honest, as soon as we started, we’ve had to rehash and grow and expand our plans every week to meet the level of demand we’re seeing,” says Carnell. “For the long-term, we see that the government want domestic suppliers of these products in some capacity, and a lot of businesses require these products to operate. We will have to make sure they have a really robust supply chain, with a long-term vision.”