Located in Lansdowne in the Western Cape, Plastform started life in 1980/1981, and was still a fledgling operation when, in 1983, it was acquired by an Austro-German investment consortium, spearheaded by one of Cape Town’s best-known plastics gurus, Peter Rohrer (ex Safepak). This change of ownership marked a positive turning point in the company’s early history and set it on a course for exceptional growth.
In 1995, the business changed hands once more when Consol bought Plastform as part of its investment drive into the plastics packaging sector. Despite the new shareholders, however, Peter Rohrer remained at the helm as CEO and, supported by a well-trained and highly-motivated team, continued to ensure Plastform’s progress. Indeed, some of those team members are still with Plastform to this day, underlining the company’s long-service ethos.
Yet another change occurred in 2006, when Consol’s board of directors decided to return to their glass roots and Plastform was sold to Astrapak.
Today Plastform is an integral part of Astrapak’s rigid plastics division in the Cape falling under the management of regional chief executive, Keith Watkins, and enjoying particular synergies with two other Astrapak subsidiaries, Thermopac and Marcom Plastics.
And now it’s woman power!
From an operational point of view, Plastform is headed by general manager, Renske Snyman – the first woman to head up an Astrapak manufacturing operation.
Although Renske joined the company quite recently, she has a strong background in packaging operations and brings over a decade’s worth of management experience to her new role.
As recorded in an article in the latest issue of Unpacked (the Astrapak group newsletter), Renske has a BCom from Unisa and a chemistry PhD from the University of Pretoria. An MBA from the University of Stellenbosch is due for completion this year. There’s no doubt that she’s academically qualified!
After years of focused operational work with short-term targets at Mondi Versapak, she decided on a career change and, she reckons, ‘Plastform is just the ticket’.
‘Plastform has a dedicated team who, without exception, go the extra ten miles,’ she elaborates. ‘I firmly believe that Plastform’s success was built on loyalty and the sharing of knowledge among all those working here. Plastform will go forward successfully because of these people, their initiative and dedication,’ Renske maintains.
‘The company is known for the high speed at which it operates, with seldom a dull moment. New products and changing markets add to the daily excitement,’ she continues. ‘Plastform has a solid customer base that forms a strong foundation in this time of economic downturn.’
But she’s not bearing the management burden alone. Renske is backed up by a strong management team.
One such key person, with a proud ten-year history at Plastform, is Gavin Coppin (national sales and marketing manager).
Some of Gavin’s colleagues have memories that stretch even further back – for instance Hilton Thomas (printing production manager) has clocked up 28 years with Plastform; Robert de Villiers (extrusion manager), previously with sister company, Thermopac, has been part of the scene for 29 years; and Harry Phiri (forming manager) boasts 30 years’ service.
Other members of the management team include Meryl Mitchell (QA manager) and Paul Foreman (operations manager). Two other strategic functions – represented by Mike Day (technical manager) and Marius van Staden (supply chain manager) – are shared between Plastform and sister company Thermopac.
Walk into any retail food store and you’ll see Plastform products. The company undoubtedly has a sterling reputation among South Africa’s leading producers of quality thermoformed packaging – from yoghurt containers to fruit and vegetable trays, salad bowls and fast food packaging – with customers of the stature of Danone, Nestlé, Parmalat, DairyBelle, Fair Cape, Woolworths, Pick n Pay, Spar, Nando’s and KFC.
Remarks Gavin Coppin: ‘Although 70% of our turnover is still accounted for by dairy product packaging, we’re gaining an increasing share of the fast food market. We also serve the ready-prepared meal section.’
Plastform’s position as a leading supplier is hard-won and much of the company’s success stems from its sterling efforts in the field of new product development, in partnership with customers. Here are a few examples.
Traditionally, one-litre yoghurt packs comprised a tub, a foil seal (for seal integrity and tamper-evidence) and a clip-over lid (for reclosing convenience). However, to reduce packaging costs, dairies increasingly call for packs that offer such features without the need for multiple components. Plastform rose to this challenge back in 2007. Collaborating with SPI (Specialised Plastics Industries), an innovative Cape Town-based injection moulder, the team at Plastform came up with a design that combined a thermoformed polystyrene tub with an injection-moulded HDPE lid. Patented design features were incorporated into the mould to provide an innovative mechanism for locking the tamper evident band into place and allowing it to break free when the lid was lifted. Both tub and lid are dry offset printed.
And, in 2009, Fair Cape approached Plastform to come up with an innovative and recyclable pack for its organic yoghurts. In a record time of six weeks, clear 150g and clear 800g PS tubs in a new shape with tamper-evident lids were developed. The result is offset-printed tubs that stand out in the fridges – and, best of all, consumers can see the tubs are full of fruit.
‘Not only do we work with closely with our customers to develop innovative packaging to suit their specific needs, we’re also committed to delivering exceptional quality at competitive rates,’ comments Gavin Coppin. This quality, he insists, is made possible by continuing investments in leading-edge technology.
Plastform’s production facilities rank among the best in the industry and are frequently audited to comply with stringent international standards including ISO 9001: 2000 and AIB.
Additionally, advanced CAD-CAM facilities assist in developing customers’ specific packaging requirements.
Aside from state-of-the-art extrusion equipment, Plastform boasts diverse forming capabilities with a range of thermoformers, including the latest Illig K54 high-speed line. Its impressive printing line-up of six dry offset presses was enhanced by the addition of a Polytype nine-colour press, which to this day remains the only such nine-colour press in the country, and which gives Plastform a particular edge in the quality printing stakes.
‘When it comes to printing, dry-offset is no longer a “Cinderella” technology. Nowadays, we can achieve a stunning on-shelf impact using dry-offset printing,’ asserts Gavin.
So what exactly has changed to bring dry-offset to such elevated quality standards?
‘Traditionally dry-offset printing was seen as a cost-effective but somewhat limited form of decorating. In other words, you went this route because it was cheaper, but sacrificed some on-shelf impact,’ Gavin replies. ‘But over the past few years, this process has made enormous strides. Although it must be admitted that the process still doesn’t meet in-mould label decorative standards, it comes pretty close. Where dry-offset once was viewed as the poor country cousin, it has now reached a significant level of sophistication.’
Mainly the changes revolve around improved equipment and evolving printing technology – not least being the transformation to digital platemaking techniques, the ability to print dry offset using CMYK colours, and ever-improving skills and practices among Plastform’s technical team.
The Polytype is a high-performance printing system for round, tapered tubs, such as those used in the dairy sector. It offers a range of benefits, including easy access for operators. But most importantly, it offers exceptionally fast changeover, leading to improved productivity.
The reduced changeover times result from easy set-ups for new tub sizes combined with high-tech features such as automatic inking unit wash-up, lever-operated ink ducts with automatic inking programmes, and servo-motor adjustments for printing decks. A digital display of each printing deck position allows really fast changeovers, while digitised data is memorised for each tub size and recalled for the next changeover.
Another innovation on this machine is its automatic print control system that guarantees top-class print quality. An in-line camera inspects the printed image at startling production speeds of 600 tubs/min. It’s this throughput speed that Gavin highlights as another major advantage for off-line dry-offset printing, as opposed to in-line in-mould labelling (IML).
‘With IML,’ he explains, ‘the challenge is setting capacity levels to meet fluctuating demands. Off-line dry-offset printing makes it easier to fulfil dairies’ sometimes erratic orders,’ he comments. To meet these demand variations, Plastform maintains a buffer stock that allows for the accumulation of plain tubs awaiting decoration.
In summary, so far as off-line dry-offset printing is concerned, the advantages are threefold – it caters for vagaries of demand, it offers excellent on-shelf impact, and it’s achieved at relatively low cost.’
However, Gavin points out that customers have a choice between direct printing and IML decoration within the Astrapak group. Pretoria-based Marcom Plastics offers injection-moulded tubs (as opposed to Plastform’s thermoformed tubs) with a choice between offset printing and IML. In essence, this means that Astrapak offers every possible choice to suit dairy industry needs in terms of quality and cost.
Trend-setting extrusion system
And against that backdrop of production excellence comes the new investment in a Battenfeld-Cincinnati high-speed extrusion system.
This addition to Plastform’s armoury represents the latest-generation high-speed sheet extruders from Battenfeld-Cincinnati and marks a quantum leap in the history of extrusion technology.
Among its significant attributes are a 75mm screw diameter that offers optimum process technology in terms of diameter/torque ratio; a 15 to 25% energy saving compared to traditional systems; a compact footprint; a reduction in changeover times, thanks to minimised extruder volume; and improved production up-time.
In a nutshell, this compact line takes up minimal space while offering maximum output and simplifying maintenance.
But the most important factor that led the team at Plastform to invest in this particular line was the exceptional quality output, which is of paramount importance as the sheeting produced is primarily destined for highly-sensitive dairy product packaging.
‘The extruder has been custom-built to our exact specifications,’ explains regional chief executive, Keith Watkins. ‘Features of the line are functionality, flexibility and cost-efficiency. These are absolute priorities for us. It’s a dual 75mm high-speed extruder on which we will extrude HIPS and PP, destined primarily for form-fill-seal dairy tub production but also for in-house thermoforming.’
And if this isn’t enough good news, Keith also mentions the imminent arrival of a Kiefel Speedformer KMD thermoformer.
With its future-orientated control system this high-performance machine will bring efficient mass production to Plastform’s thermoforming operations. Among its particular features are a high degree of automation and an ingeniously designed tool change mechanism.
The machine is expected to be commissioned by November this year.
Another key factor in Plastform’s success is international benchmarking on which Keith Watkins has always placed strong emphasis. Previously as MD of Thermopac, and more recently as chief executive of all Astrapak’s Cape-based businesses, Keith has long argued that local packaging should match the quality standards of that manufactured in Europe. Equally important, however, has been his insistence on cost-effective production, helping customers to fend off the threat of imported products and allowing them to export cost-competitive products.
Keith’s passion to compete as a world-class packaging player led to culture of continuous improvement – first at Thermopac and then rolled out throughout Astrapak’s operations. Just one example was Thermopac’s becoming the first South African plastic packaging converter to achieve BRC (British Retail Consortium) accreditation – recognised as the world’s most rigorous system of quality and hygiene management for food packaging.
A world-class manufacturing programme provided the foundation for BRC but the standards required to achieve BRC took Thermopac to new levels of excellence, which now permeate throughout all Astrapak’s operations – not least Plastform.
So, while Plastform has come a long way from those early days three decades ago, when plastics packaging technology was relatively young, its founding fathers would surely be delighted with the pinnacle it has reached today.
Ed’s note: Watch for news of the Kiefel thermoformer’s commissioning later in the year.