Icon Plastics – Iconic Manufacturing

British manufacturing is facing challenging times, but Icon Plastics shows us how the sector can soar to new heights.

Icon Plastics is a plastic injection moulding company, but more than that, it is a place where experts bring concepts and designs to life. The manufacturer is able to serve the entire life cycle of a product.

“We can design plastic injection moulded parts then bring them to volume production and supply,” says Gareth Thomas, Managing Director of Icon Plastics. “We offer a full turnkey solution from modelling an idea, taking a part drawing, and running through a design all the way to concept design, material selection, design for manufacturing, mould flow, mould tool design, and the UK or offshore tool manufacture. We can provide samples, full ISR measurement, PPAP, PSW and full production supply and assembly. We will do anything that adds value. We call it an integrated manufacturing solution.”

As well as possessing the vertical integration to run the entire life cycle of a product, Icon Plastics is also able to serve a broad range of sectors.

“We have the knowledge, the expertise and the flexibility to work across many market sectors, giving us an understanding of each customer,” Thomas tells us. “We’re attentive. We give each project the same attention regardless of sector or revenue and have a proven track record with longstanding customers. 60% of our customers have been with us for over eight years. We do not take risks. We have a strong balance sheet and we invest in the latest machines and technology.”

Navigating Challenging Times

Icon Plastics is a powerhouse of skills and expertise, but like many businesses, particularly in the manufacturing sector, it has faced multiple significant challenges over the last couple of years, especially around the supply chain.

“Brexit has created issues around the supply of raw materials, further complicated by Covid and lockdown,” Thomas says. “Throughout this, we’ve had to continue to supply critical market sectors such as medical instruments, filtration, lighting, and the agricultural supply chain.”

Icon Plastics has been able to navigate these combined challenges thanks to the good relationships it has with raw materials suppliers, allowing the manufacturer to order ahead and hold stock to avoid letting clients down.

“Since February a lot of raw materials have increased in price, in some cases doubling. That is the impact of Covid,” Thomas admits. “We’ve even seen a lack of cardboard for applications such as packaging. All sectors have been hit.”

These challenges date back to the very beginning of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown when nobody was sure how bad the fallout from the virus was going to be.

“We had to bring in the staff we saw to be least at risk to continue to support vital sectors,” Thomas recalls. “As a team of managers, we took on roles such as driving the vans and operating machinery, to ensure our customers received their orders.”

As well as facing shortages in its own raw materials chain, Icon Plastics has also seen the consequences of shortages in other sectors.

“On top of the supply chain issue you’ve got the semiconductor issue,” Thomas points out. “Our customers in the automotive sector are feeling the impact of this with production lines standing and staff having to be furloughed for weeks on end. This is now starting to hit other market sectors we supply. It would seem anything built with a printed circuit board could be affected. We need to invest in our own semiconductor manufacturing facilities here in the UK and quickly.”

On top of raw material shortages, there has also been an industry-wide labour shortage and skill gap.

“With Brexit, as well as Covid, there’s suddenly a surge of job vacancies and not enough candidates,” says Thomas, who has worked hard to ensure Icon Plastics provides potential recruits with a strong offering. “Recruiting staff is proving difficult. We are fortunate to have a very stable management team- our newest member has been here four years. We offer a good rate of pay. We screen our staff ourselves and evaluate them during the probation period to make sure they fit our expectations. With our sector, it’s quite specialist.”

The problem, Thomas believes, is that there needs to be a clearer route into the industry for the new generation of talent.

“In the plastics sector we’ve found there hasn’t been any kind of set route for apprentices,” he points out. “There’s a basic apprenticeship, but when it comes to processing injection moulding, we’ve needed to bring in people who’ve been in the industry for years to run our courses. We also work with colleges and some independents on training.”

Resurgent Britain

Despite, and to some extent, because of the challenges facing the British manufacturing sector, Thomas is optimistic about its prospects over the coming years.

“UK manufacturing is on the up. We’ve seen more companies looking to re-shore their supply chain following Brexit and the pandemic,” Thomas explains. “The UK can offer better lead times, more assured quality, shipping times and transport costs.”

As well as providing economic benefits, a more locally based supply chain will also help to mitigate the next big issue on the horizon. Sustainability is a huge priority for Icon Plastics.

“Sourcing from abroad can mean a lack of environmental controls in place on where the goods are being produced,” Thomas tells us. “We’re seeing customers want cleaner, greener goods. At Icon, we recycle all of our waste plastic into other products. We recycle all our cardboard, all our polythene packaging. We have over 500 solar panels on our factory roof generating power for the machines. We are in the process of switching over to returnable packaging. We offer free electric car charging for employees. These are our green credentials, and I think we need to be more mindful as manufacturers and end-users. We have to be more conscious.”

The next three years are set to be an extremely exciting time at Icon Plastics, with the company boasting huge growth plans across all sectors.

As Thomas says, “We have invested £500,000 in the last year alone across staff, infrastructure, and facilities. We have two sites opposite each other, covering 4.7 acres between them. That is plenty of land to grow into, and we’re looking to create 40 jobs over the next three years.”

Icon Plastics is set to lead the vanguard on locally sourced, sustainable, full-life-cycle plastics manufacturing.

“One-use disposable culture is becoming unfashionable. Among the plastics we manufacture, everything has a recycling code. It’s not one use,” Thomas says. “They are cradle-to-grave products that are then recycled. We are mindful of that. We are in plastics, but not one-use. We manufacture to be reused again.”

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