Precisely does it at Blakell Europlacer

    Poole-based Blakell Europlacer is a big player in the micro world of making printed circuit boards. Business development and UK sales manager Andy Jones tells Tim Wickham how it’s done.

    Blakell Europlacer’s factory on the edge of Poole harbour, and its sister plant in France, make the machines that place components as small as 0.4mm x 0.2mm on to printed circuit boards (PCBs) using surface-mount technology (SMT). Depending on its use, a PCB can contain a few or a few thousand components.

    Europlacer pick-and-place machines have historically focused on low to mid-volume PCB batch sizes with placement rates up to 30,000 components per hour (cph). However, its new atom range of machines is taking the business into new markets with placement rates up to 100,000cph. Basic PCBs might only need one or two components, but those used in the control panels found in Blakell’s customer Rolls Royce’s aerospace engines are highly complex, with hundreds of high-value components.

    Unique equipment

    Entrepreneur Pat Kellard set up Blakell in Blandford Forum in the 1960s developing a range of machines for automating the process of placing ‘through hole’ technology (THT) devices into PCBs. In the early 1990s, he saw an opportunity to move into the manufacture of SMT machines with the purchase of French based Europlacer Industries.

    Kellard relocated the company to a larger factory in Poole in 1999. Here, it makes Speedprint stencil printing machines that deposit metal solder paste onto PCBs in exactly the right locations so as to mechanically and electrically connect the SMT devices on to the surface of the PCB. This is the first part of the assembly process – after the paste has been deposited by the stencil printing machine, the Europlacer pick and place system then precisely place the SMT devices on to the paste.

    “Europlacer was the pioneer for ‘intelligent feeders’. These feeders allowed the operator of the machine to load the parts in any location on the machine, facilitating quick set-up and changeover. We have honed this technology further and it is the backbone of our manufacturing systems,” said Andy Jones.

    Blakell Europlacer:                            No 48

    Andy Jones

    Annual sales are around 100 a year for each of the Speedprint and Europlacer product lines, with global sales evenly split between OEMs and contract equipment manufacturers (CEM). With the introduction of the atom range of machines, Europlacer sees itself increasing its output in the coming years as it enters different global markets.

    Local skills

    “We try to source as many of the materials for our machines as we can in the local area,” Jones said.

    Around 50 of its 160-strong workforce are based in the Poole headquarters, with the remainder split between the French manufacturing site and at direct offices around the globe, including the USA, Germany, Italy and China. “We have sales and service in our major markets, and utilise a combination of direct sales, representatives and distributors throughout the world, allowing us to give the right level of support both locally and globally,” said Jones.

    Strong global growth

    Last year, the Blakell Europlacer delivered its highest ever turnover at £27 million. That was up from £23m in 2016 and £18m in 2015. A weak sterling benefited sales, as did increasing global market share. Jones is particularly pleased with a 16% compound average growth rate (CAGR) in 2017, and 25% CAGR for its China business. The US represents another growing market that it plans to focus on in 2018, itself growing by 18% last year.

    Ethical approach

    Kellard instilled in the company his Christian ethics of integrity, honesty, and respect. In 2013, Blakell Europlacer was acquired by Parable Trust, a not-for-profit, faith-based organisation run by former PwC corporate finance partner Robert Conway. “When he retired, Pat wanted to know that his business and employees were going to be in good hands,” said Jones.

    Hot future

    Blakell Europlacer has other revenue streams as a distributor of ancillary equipment used in PCB production. It has plans to increase its offering of ‘line solutions’ by making strategic OEM deals with third-party complementary product lines. This would give it coverage of the three core elements of PCB production: ovens for ‘melting’ the solder paste, stencil printing and pick and place equipment, as well as the other core products such as PCB handling, Automatic Optical inspection (AOI) and XRAY.