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Floyd Patterson and Seamus Ivory (R) from 360 Reprographics
Repro companies can pick up a lot of the strain for printers and are often relied upon when things get a bit sticky. Large or small, the main job of a repro house is to provide its customers with plates, which in itself is a demanding task. Michal Lodej writes.
While a printer may go to their repro company for help in a number of matters, a repro house's bread and butter is still making plates. As the industry moves forward, quality is essential to competing for jobs, and obtaining a good printed result is reliant on the quality of the plate.
So with the emphasis on quality is plate making in today's market any harder than it used to be? Tim Warner, technical director at MPH, said, 'Technology has certainly made a huge difference to plate making as well as the demands on the plate. The overall plate quality has gone up because the technology has made it more difficult to make a bad plate. I don't think it has made a well made plate appreciably better. In other words: there are no longer any bad plates; it's more of a matter of selecting a plate that works in a particular environment.
'Of course, the expectations of the printer/customer have got ever higher. Often, there is no opportunity, or appetite, for any trial or experimentation. Any plate you give to a customer has to work almost immediately or risk being dismissed.
'The same is true of any RIP or screening technology you believe that may benefit a printer. So little time is allocated to any trials of new technology, it can stifle progress. It can feel like you are testing something new with a gun to your head: one slip and you're history!'
Making a good plate is one thing, but now a huge part of the job is ensuring it gets to the printer for when they need it.
Mr Warner continued, 'As a repro house, there are
also some serious time constraints. We have to get plates
despatched to customers and, in this area, technology has been very
helpful. Thermal, and now water-washed, plates has pushed cut-off
times much later in the afternoon. Being able to take orders later
helps us react more quickly to dynamic customer demands.'
With the increasing frequency of brand packaging refreshes, said to be commonly every six months in the food and drink industry today, the key trends in flexographic printing continue to be focused on fast response, shorter run length, high quality production, with increasing pack design complexity.
For the pre-press provider, this means digitalisation of the workflow becomes ever more critical, removing waste and errors from the supply chain to optimise cost and efficiency.
Steve Mulcahy, Contact Group CEO, said, 'In today's highly complex FMCG retail environment, the speed of innovation and change is accelerating. Printers need to respond to that requirement and we, as strategic suppliers of artwork, reprographics and plate solutions, need to support them in their product and process development needs. It's simply not the case that printers are just being demanding, the market environment they operate in is highly competitive.'
Although required with haste, it is important that a plate is viewed as a critical component and not another commodity item. Plate investment should not only be made on the quality of the polymer, but also the screening of the image and the stability of the exposed halftone.
Andy Hewitson, managing director, Reproflex 3, said, 'Here at the coalface, we understand the commencement of the mechanics of the physical production of packaging, the moment where the image is born in the form of the polymer plate, the first stages in the packaging creation, the make or break point of the final image quality, is also the moment where the polymer processing capabilities introduce the contribution towards the production margins for the printer.
'We believe to be a strong performer as a repro
house, problem solving within the digital workflow and the polymer
manufacturing is key to success. We work in partnership with our
clients and suppliers to focus on developing processes that take
time and cost out whilst building efficiency into the pre-press.
Online automation, fixed pallet digital conversion, high
performance polymer manufacturing and plate cutting for fast and
easy plate mounting are just some of the advancements.'
Adapting to change
As printers learn to adapt to the changing FMCG market, so too must their providers. Louth-based repro company Waldo is spending approximately £750,000 in major refurbishment of the company's facilities, in what managing director, Phil Walmsley, recognises as the next step in the company's development.
'Two years ago we created a new studio on the first floor. The rest of the first floor is being stripped out and new offices and staff break out areas created, this should be completed January 2018. The next phase will be to rejig the layout of the ground floor to give a more efficient flow to the production areas.
The studio at Waldo
The company is on course for a £3 million turnover this year, and is working towards a turnover of £5 million in the next few years.
Waldo was heavily involved with Esko in the development of its Full HD plate making technology and was the first UK plate manufacturers to receive Full HD certification; however, the company does not necessarily go with a supplier just because they have a big name.
Mr Walmsley explained, 'It is actually my preference to see what else is on the market, no matter how small or unknown the provider might be because it makes us a little different.
'We have a careful approach to business; we're not looking to make a lot of money quickly but would rather build our brand organically and on sustainable business. This doesn't mean we are not proactive, we are always looking for something which might improve our offering to our clients business, and standing still is not an option.'
He continued, 'It is getting easier to make plates, or should I say, it's harder to make a bad plate. This means that from a client point of view quality is a given, and price has also come down in the production of HD plates. The majority of our flexible packaging plates are made on flat top dot material, even though some work doesn't warrant this type of plate, from a production and inventory point of view we can operate more efficiently. Now is an exciting time for flexo with new plates being introduced by various vendors, new screening technologies and plate processing equipment. What it boils down to is finding the right combination of plate, tape, anilox and ink that gives the optimum result for our clients.'
In order to compete with some of the larger repro houses on the scene, 360 Reprographics has developed exceptional levels of service with a personal touch, to help customers optimise their processes.
Owner Seamus Ivory said, 'A small independent company has great strength in flexibility and being able to react to clients' issues with a more 'hands on' approach which goes a long way to helping build partnerships. We know who we are dealing with on a personal level but we should by no means become complacent.
Investment was required throughout the business and a new Filemaker MIS system was installed in December 2014 along with Esko Automation Engine, Esko's workflow server. This automates pre-press tasks, which not only speeds up the process, but reduces the error rate and need for operator intervention.
Mr Ivory continued, 'Dealing direct with printers in the wide web flexo market it soon became clear that investment had to be made to support the demands for press match proofing and higher quality plate reproduction. This had become a 'given' for the supermarkets and was gradually working its way down to independent suppliers also. Polymer suppliers were making headway with 'in the plate' technology but our chosen route was to go for the benchmark in the industry and our Kodak NX Mid system was installed and qualified in April 2015. This allowed our customers to push the boundaries of traditional flexo printing. Higher quality polymers and advanced screening improved things right across the board and printers had a better result with little or no investment on their behalf alleviating press problems which had previously been reflected in their finished product.'