Should a printer define itself by the equipment it uses or by its customers? Marketing theory would suggest the latter, but with the high prices and long pay-back times of presses there’s a risk you may find you fall into the former by default if you don’t keep an eye on the markets you serve and invest accordingly.
One firm that didn’t want to find itself in that situation was London-based Park Communications.
“50% of our work was for the financial sector and we recognised that a lot of that was going to go online, so we needed to reposition the business and focus on markets with longevity,” says managing director Alison Branch.
Some of the financial work, such as report and accounts (R&A), remains and provided a bridge to new markets with similar requirements.
“We’ve built a strong presence in markets that require high-quality print and service, including R&A work, specialist magazines and marketing materials for the luxury market,” says Branch.
The quality of the work is demonstrated by Park winning the magazine and R&A gongs in the PrintWeek Awards two years running.
Park’s acquisition of another PrintWeek Award winner helped in the move to the higher quality market when it bought the assets and goodwill of Southend, Essex-based fine art printer Granite Colour out of administration in January 2011. Specifically the skill of its pre-press and press operators provided Park with the ability to tackle the most demanding jobs.
The strategy has paid off, with high-value work now making up 40% of the company’s business and continuing to grow.
All of these developments needed to be borne in mind when the time came to upgrade one of Park’s presses. Up until the end of 2015 the firm ran three long perfectors, an eight-colour and two 10-colours, which at the time of their installation offered the most suitable combination of quality, efficiency and fast turnaround.
In 2014 the firm began to consider its next press, which turned out to be a harder and more drawn-out process than it had expected due to a number of factors. In the end the process took six months, as opposed to the three months previously required, and the outcome was not what Park had expected.
“We initially thought that we would go for another perfecting press,” says Branch. “As we assessed the capabilities of the equipment and as we spoke to our customers, that changed.”
Park engaged more with customers than in previous investment assessments. Their input was crucial in making the final decision. Branch says this has taught her that “it is very dangerous to assume you know what customers think”.
Customers’ requirements influenced the investment and quality has become more important as markets have changed.
“Print is recognised and valued as part of the marketing mix for its unique features – it’s tactile and sensual,” she says. “It engages the senses and it conveys quality. Customers wanted to use special materials and to make more use of coatings.
“There is some work with critical tints where the need for the utmost quality is called for and the difference between the front and the back of the sheet, when one-pass perfected, is noticeable,” she says.
Also, the use of uncoated paper is increasing, reflecting the importance of tactility, which again presents production challenges.
“A lot of uncoated papers won’t perfect very well in one pass, even on the latest presses,” she says.
When Park analysed its job mix it found that 30% of work was running straight rather than one-pass perfecting, even though all its colour presses were perfectors.
Then there is coating. While it could seal on its previous presses it couldn’t coat and was increasingly being asked for coating, including drip-off that requires a dedicated coater. Other issues also made coating important both aesthetically and for productivity.
“We’ve noticed a decline in the quality on coated papers in recent years, probably due to the increase in filler and that results in gas ghosting, which coating eliminates,” she says.
“Quicker drying of uncoated paper by coating on press means that some work can be backed up immediately. That offers clients a quicker turnaround and simplifies our workflow, so we’ll have much less work sitting around on pallets.”
Another issue thrown up by analysing its job mix was the number of jobs with special colours, with a lot of six-colour jobs that meant its perfectors were running straight anyway.
Changes in press technology since the firm last bought a press made a significant difference to economics and productivity, halving makeready times and doubling running speed. They also use at least 30% fewer sheets of paper for makeready.
“We can produce work as quickly on the new straight press as we could on our old perfectors. This approach works for us as we’re predominantly short run – our typical run is 4,000-5,000 copies.”
Flexibility was also a factor. One perfector would have cost more, and on perfecting work been twice as fast, so the firm would have had to take out two presses.
“If we went for the straight press we could keep three presses and have back-up and flexibility,” she says. “You need internal back-up; there aren’t that many good trade printers these days who could help out in a tight spot.”
Last year Park also put in an HP Indigo and digital sales have doubled in the six months since, meaning digital is likely to be increasingly important. But if Park opted for a perfector, it would mean investing an additional £1m on litho technology and with the rapid development of larger sheetfed digital presses, that would limit its investment options, especially with Drupa 2016 around the corner.
“There is a lot of activity around digital, in B2 there are Konica Minolta, Fuji and HP, and what Heidelberg is doing with B1,” she says. “We want to wait and see what happens. We didn’t need the additional capacity, so why tie ourselves up? We’re able to keep our powder dry this way.”
Once the decision had been made to go for a six-colour plus coater it had to pick the supplier, there were only two firms in contention – Heidelberg and KBA.
Extensive trials by one of its minders using the toughest jobs then followed in Germany before the decision was made, with the decision in the end in favour of KBA.
“It handled difficult subject matter very well and is slightly more automated,” she says. Another plus point was the Qualitronic sheet inspection system. “We wanted that extra security because of the quality expectations of our clients.”
At the beginning of November 2015 Park took out its the original eight-colour Heidelberg Speedmaster 102 long perfector to make way for the KBA, leaving it with two 10-colour presses. During the rest of November new footings were put in for the KBA and in December installation began, with commissioning this month.
The timing was important, the new machine needed to be bedded-in for the 2016 R&A season and installation needed to cause as little disruption as possible.
“The staff have been very flexible and we were able to add an extra shift while we were a press down to maintain capacity,” she says. “Fortunately, November and December are a quieter time of year anyway.”
Even before the completion of the installation Branch is confident that the firm’s decision is the right one.
“We have secured more contractual business because of the new press,” she says.
New litho capabilities bringing in more business is a good conclusion to the current round of investment, while retaining the ability to invest in digital developments could be the beginning of another exciting journey for Park.
Inspection host Alison Branch, managing director
Size Turnover: £14m; staff: 120
Established In 1991 in east London, initially serving the City with a lot of overnight work. It had to move from its old site to make way for the 2012 Olympics, which resulted in relocation to Beckton
Client base Financial services, fine art, luxury goods, magazines and property
Services and products Typesetting and composition; R&A, brochures and magazines; printing; digital printing; bindery; mailing & fulfilment
Kit Six-colour KBA Rapida 106 plus coater, two 10-colour Heidelberg Speedmaster 102 presses, HP Indigo 7800
Inspection focus Realigning your production capabilities
Assess your current market sectors for longevity and, if necessary, identify and look to enter new ones to replace any declines.
Consider the skills and the technology that you will need to succeed in those different markets.
Develop a strategy to bring on board the appropriate skills and technology, whether it is through in-house training and equipment investment, acquisition or a combination of approaches.
Talk to customers about their requirements early in the process of assessing your options and check what they think about your plans before making a final decision.
Think what impact different papers, finishes and effects required will on the type of production technology that is most appropriate.
Involve your production staff in the evaluation and decision-making; after all they will have to operate the equipment day to day.
Plan the timing of installation at a quiet part of the year to minimise disruption to the business.
Get staff buy-in to ensure their flexibility during the decommissioning of old equipment and commissioning of the new to maintain capacity through extra shifts.
Don’t over invest in one technology. The development of larger digital sheetfed presses is potentially disruptive, over investment in litho may restrict your ability to take advantage of new capabilities in a timely way.