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Stellar Success from a Nuts Idea!


Innovation is usually measured in increments, not leaps. And so it was with Hurst Green Plastics.  John Henderson hears how a chance encounter and a knockabout conversation provided the springboard for a global success story.  We also hear advice on how to manage innovative thinking through the application of a simple market development mix.

An amazing ‘Eureka’ moment transformed a small Ribble Valley company into a global operation that today counts the American space agency NASA among its clients.  When Stephen Clarke bought the company in 1979 and renamed it Hurst Green Plastics after the village it was based in he had no idea the amazing journey it would take him on.

The company made cocktail sticks, before turning its focus to the nut and pick-n-mix scoop containers as seen in cinema foyers and popular with supermarkets.

Stephen moved on to design a hands-free dispenser that, with the turn of a handle, dropped the nuts down into a bag.

Then came that Eureka moment – A BAE Systems executive buying peanuts from a dispenser suddenly had the idea that the system could be adapted to dispense fasteners on the shop floor.

He got hold of the firm’s address, contacted Stephen and asked him if he could design a special storage bin that could dispense rivets to the fitters on the aircraft production lines.

That was in 1997 and rest, as they say, is history.  The firm’s TwinBin and FlagBin system, which also acts as a valuable tool in stock control and ‘just in time’ production, is used by big players in manufacturing industries all over the world.

Its clients include all the major aerospace players including Airbus, BAE, Boeing, and Fokker, it also supplies major manufacturers in other sectors; rail companies including Alstom Transport; and now the NHS and health service providers.

Its products are aimed at saving companies time, money and effort in maintaining stock control.  Feedback has shown firms get a return in their investment in just six months.  British Aerospace has over 10,000 TwinBin dispensers at work around its Samlesbury site, including the new F-35 Aircraft facility.

Operating from premises at The Sidings Business Park in Whalley, Hurst Green Plastics now has a 10-strong workforce.  Last year it was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Award for Innovation and Enterprise.  And innovation remains central to the business as it continues to move forward.  Managing Director Tommy Sharples says: “The TwinBin has gone through a multitude of developments from the original product to where it is today.  We are continually modifying and developing it to bring in new technologies.  Nothing stands still here.”

That work includes a current project looking at modifying the process so that the bins will transmit a radio signal (RFID) when they need to be refilled, saving manufacturers even more time and money in their stock control.

Tommy, who was born in Whalley and who joined the company in 2005, has recently moved into the MD’s chair, with company founder Stephen and his wife Martine moving into joint chairmanship roles.  However, it is very much business as usual.

Tommy says: “We’re regularly updating and improving our products, we talk to our customers on a daily basis and we are able to move quickly to find them solutions and meet their demands.  We aim to be customers’ best friends and we make it very easy for them to speak to us.”

“Everyone who works here has an input in that development, because they know all our products inside and out and are involved with the customers.  It is all about listening, being flexible and being quick to respond.”

“We also have a close relationship with our suppliers, most of them are in the North West, and we are also continually talking to them to keep our products moving forwards.”

Protecting the technology is vital to the company and patents play a major role.  Tommy Says: “We have always made sure that our inventions and innovations are patented both in the UK and globally.  That Protection is important to us.”

Last year’s Queen’s Award was a big breakthrough for the company, bringing it to the attention of many blue chip companies.  “Once companies get in touch it is very easy to build a business case for adopting our system,” he says.

The firm’s export record is impressive, with growing numbers of clients in countries ranging from the US and New Zealand to Puerto Rico, Angola and Brazil.  Tommy is heading off on tour of present and potential clients in America shortly.

The company showcases its products internationally at events such as the Paris and Singapore and Farnborough Airshows.  It is also a member of the UK’s Lean Factory Group, which provides workshops for companies looking for that extra advantage from their manufacturing processes.

Expansion continues, not just geographically but in the sectors Hurst Green Plastics and its products serve.  Tommy says: “We have only scratched the surface, both with the industries we sell to and internationally.


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