Yorkshire-based Leach has put together an innovations team to come up with possibilities that will slake its customers’ thirst for something a bit different
Leach has designed and built a mounting rig that allows it to install single piece bespoke printed wallcoverings up to 5m high and at any length, allowing it entry into markets where others can only hope to follow. It also has a fast growing rear-illuminated lightbox business, that makes good use of its in-house developed printed white grid on Perspex system that enables even light distribution across the whole printed graphic overlay; and it has moved into providing printed POP/POS graphics that switch from mono to colour with just white LED backlighting thanks to clever ink layering. The list of novel ideas goes on… there’s the recently announced ‘Product Wall’ for instance - a merchandise display system up to 15m x 5m that integrates illuminated graphics with a concealed magnetic-based display system that allows floating shelves or hooks to be added at the store’s whim. The point I’m making is that for Leach innovation is a serious business. According to MD Richard Leach it has an annual R&D budget of around £100,000 and that’s excluding the salaries of its ‘Innovation Team’ headed by product development manager Mike Willshaw - who has an engineering background - and comprises ten staff from technical, design, sales and marketing disciplines.
“We’ve always pushed boundaries to ensure we have the next big thing. Markets move so quickly that we know we need to be proactive in doing this,” says Leach, whose great-grandfather Arthur Holdsworth founded the business back in 1891.
You just need to look at the historical timeline on the Leach website to realise that innovation has indeed always played a key part in its growth. But to pick out a key point in the development of what started out as a photo lab in Brighouse, just a couple of miles from the £11m turnover’s current site in Bradley, 1895 saw it start producing 8 x 4ft images by laying a vertical enlarger on its side and using master rolls of photo paper (normally sold sheeted by Kodak). “So we’ve really been in large-format repro since then smiles Leach, pointing out that this large scale photo/portraiture capability opened up opportunities in sectors such as museums, exhibitions, retail - areas it continues to target.
“We’ve always had a highly technical staff here that develops solutions we think the market is going to want,” says Leach, who oversaw the relaunch of Leach - from Leach Colour - in 2014 as a way of getting the message across that it was “less about providing print and more about being part of the creative process”. In conjunction with that rebrand Leach Impact, Leach Inspire and Leach Studio were officially formed as separate strands of the one business: Impact handling branded environments (retail); Inspire working across visitor attractions (museums, galleries etc); and Studio being the creative design and interpretation arm.
“Internally we had been running those teams since about 2009 when we really took on board the opportunities in 3D space design,” says Leach. “Up to 2000 we’d been a print/graphics company. But we had decided even then that we wanted to integrate large-format print and products in spaces, and in 2005, via acquisition, we brought on board our own installation team. We found that we were going to sites and fitting graphics into structures installed by others and thought we could do a better job if we did the whole thing. By 2008/9 the economics of LED/illuminated display structures began to make sense so we decided to get into manufacturing and installing display structures as well as the graphics, and created a package for brands, attractions etc that few companies can deliver. It’s proved a real sweet spot, accounting for about 35% of our turnover right now and where we’re focusing growth.
“Basically, we want to deliver product and service that strengthens our customer relationships. They want ease, quality and impact, so that’s what we constantly work on.”
Leach‘s investment in technology has been around £500,000 a year for the last ten years, the latest significant spend being on a Durst 512 in the summer of 2016. “Our main investment now needs to be in people, who will push forward with product innovations,” he adds, pointing out that more effort will be put into “developing Leach’s intellectual property and professionalising our R&D.”
Mike Willshaw, the Innovation Team lead and product designer, has a solid knowledge of patenting, an understanding the company expects to draw on as his team “comes up with things that will give us an advantage”.
While he has a ‘blue sky thinking with commercial application’ remit, he does have something of a steer from the first Innovation Forum held by Leach this past winter - a bringing together of various customers and prospects to chew over possibilities. Leach wants this to become an annual event given the value of the initial one.
“We did a presentation to them about what we can do, highlighting some of the work we’ve done at flagship stores and events etc., and that opened some eyes, but what we were really also looking for, was for them to help us redefine our product development ideas and discover how we can together create something impactful in a space. I see our role as becoming an ‘experience maker’.”