Automatic Plastics: Moulding the Perfect Business
When Automatic Plastics founder Alfred Lawless decided to emigrate from Ireland to Canada, he had just had his first child and was looking for a small pay rise to help with the expenses of a new-born. His son, Al Lawless explains: “Unfortunately his boss turned him down, so he decided to emigrate. He moved to Canada and he worked there for two years in a number of roles in injection moulding, building up his expertise and knowledge.”
When Alfred returned to Ireland, he decided to give it a go himself - founding Automatic Plastics in 1972. Al explains: “It was humble beginnings; he set up with just one moulding machine, gradually building the business. The day I was born was actually the same day he got his third moulding machine.”
The company has grown significantly since then and now has a workforce of over 90 people. Son, Al Lawless, took over the family business in ’99. “When I left college, I first got some experience in another engineering company,” he recalls. “I started here at Automatic Plastics in December ’97 and Dad retired in ’99, so I had a short period working together.”
From Humble Beginnings
Automatic Plastics has grown to be one of Ireland’s largest injection moulding companies with a B2B offering that spans multiple sectors. “Our speciality is plastic injection moulding, we supply mainly to pharmaceutical, medical device and food packaging industries,” Al explains.
“We started manufacturing pharmaceutical packaging in 1980 and we’ve been strong in that sector ever since. We have grown steadily over the years, investing in capex to build an excellent machine range now spanning 27 injection moulding machines.”
Over the last 45 years, the company has come through two recessions and countless technological changes in how their business is conducted. Al explains: “The industry has become more regulated over the last 10 years, which is a positive, as it means stringent quality controls and robust inspections and audits. It is critical for us to understand our customers’ needs, which vary across sectors. We make sure we understand the client’s regulatory requirements, and the end user needs to as to be solution orientated in our product offering.”
Automatic Plastics have received certifications from the highly regulated medical device and pharmaceutical industries which has given their business the edge. Al advises: “Staying close to the market and understanding what’s going on in relation to things like regulatory changes is really important.”
One big change on the business horizon is the uncertainty of Brexit. It’s an issue the company have swiftly taken action to address. Al explains: “With Brexit, we’ve had a lot of preparation to do and we’ve been to a lot of events to give ourselves the knowledge to deal with it. One of the things we did when Brexit hit was to complete the Enterprise Ireland Brexit scorecard.”
This analysis allowed them to calculate how much of their business exported to the UK and to plan actions around overcoming some of the obstacles Brexit may create. Part of the preparation involved looking to other markets in the EU and they have since secured a significant new contract with a French company. Al notes: “There is a major investment required for the project, which is where AIB came in. They’re helping to support us in that.” Although they had spoken to AIB in the past, it wasn’t until recently that Automatic Plastics became a customer. “With such an important investment decision we decided to shop around,” Al advises. “It’s worked out well. The team at AIB were responsive and timely and were able to put a finance package together that suited us and helped us get the project off the ground. AIB’s fast turnaround facilitated the deal, we could speak to our customer with confidence, knowing that we would have the finance to invest in the equipment required to deliver the project.”
“Good Planning is the Key to Everything”
One piece of advice Al offers other businesses is the importance of good planning. “Resource planning can be tricky because when you’re in a period of growth, the challenge of completing the day to day tasks is always there, but it is critical to be strategic and plan ahead,” he notes. “When you are busy the temptation is to work in the now, but creating your company vision and engaging your staff in the delivery of that vision is the key to success. We’re running a Lean Manufacturing Program at the moment, supported by Enterprise Ireland,” he says. “Lean is about eliminating waste from your organisation, it’s about engaging all of our staff in delivering on our customer needs, and about every member of our team sharing our vision for success.”
Whilst planning is key Al says that people are the secret to business success. He speaks highly of his team at Automatic Plastics. “We have wonderful staff at Automatic Plastics. Our people are our most important asset,” he says. “With our Lean programme we have discovered that the solutions developed by staff are more likely to offer a permanent solution than an idea implemented by management. The fundamental key to success is having good staff and we have excellent staff here at Automatic Plastics – our people are without doubt the reason for our continued growth.”
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