Print Business: J Thomson Colour Printers is Scotland’s True Commercial Printer

It may be unfashionable when most companies are specialising to survive, but a Glasgow printer is determined to remain a general commercial print business. And the secret is to keep investing.

J Thomson Colour is, managing director Kevin Creechan insists, a true commercial printer. It does not specialise in books, nor magazines, direct mail nor transactional print. Stacks of work in progress around the factory underpin Creechan’s claim.

Here there are calendars for 2019; here is a prospectus for a further education establishment; here work for the Scottish government and the tourist industry and here fine art work. Posters, colouring books and calendars of the brightly coloured humorous images of highland cattle, zoo animals and now unicorns have caught on across Scotland and among tourists wanting to take home a souvenir of their visit.

It was this work that earned J Thomson Colour, the K&B 1814 productivity prizes for 2017. In a single 24-hour period, its six-colour plus coater Rapida 106 with LED UV had 67 full plate changes, printing 1,000 sheets a time of Angus McCoo and his friends and family. The job had been scheduled for 28.52 press hours. In the event it was on press for 14.09 hours matching to Epson proofs on 300gsm silk paper and notching an average of 100 sheets wasted at each makeready.

It may not be testament to the accuracy of the company’s MIS, but it is for the Glasgow printer and its investment in two presses from the German press supplier. Nor is it necessarily reflective of the work that the general commercial printer produces. “We are the embodiment of a general commercial printer,” says Creechan. “There’s not a sector we are not involved with, producing all kinds of print, even some flat sheet packaging for other printers. A lot of other companies have chosen to diversify; we have stuck to what we are good at.”

There is some design, some web to print, some project management work, which is not so different from many other printers across the UK. The difference is that J Thomson Colour is not sitting back waiting for events to guide its destiny. “We are investing in the latest and best technology. Eventually I think we will see off the others up here. Very few printers can invest like this.”

There are very few B1 printers left in Scotland, a few more B2 companies with a growing eco system of small digitally focused printers. J Thomson Colour has its own digital set up around two Indigos and matched finishing equipment. “Our competition is down south,” says Creechan, “especially on bigger projects and it will be a different competitor in each different sector. For the day to day stuff, the competition is Scottish based.”

That can include sales reps for English and Welsh printers working his patch. J Thomson Colour sent its own rep into the south east to explore opportunities. “I though let’s have a go at this’. But we discovered that the market in the south east is much more competitive than we thought it would be. We would have needed to secure a huge volume of work to make it worthwhile and that would have taken capacity we can use here.”

Instead there are sales offices in Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh the business centres after Glasgow. Edinburgh he says is the cultural capital, but Glasgow is Scotland’s economic powerhouse. And in a back street close to the M8 motorway surrounded by car accessory businesses is its print powerhouse.

The company had moved smoothly through generations of Speedmaster technology, ending up with 12-colour XL machines. In 2016 the time had come to renew the print platform, and not wanting to do more of the same, LED UV came into the equation. The conventional choice would have been to stay with Heidelberg that the operators had known for many years.

A team comprising Creechan, chairman Nick Thomson, Iain Jackson and print supervisor Steve White was put together to make the decision. It was important not to decide on something to suit today’s conditions, but to be thinking three years ahead, says Creechan. “We have always been open to the use of new technology. We asked ourselves if we were here in three years’ time, would we make the same decision. It’s been about future proofing.”

Visits and demonstrations took place at Heidelberg, Komori and K&B. “We took six of our toughest jobs to each of them. In the event K&B won hands down. A hard to register perfecting job was in fit after ten minutes thanks to the variable print length technology K&B had. Elsewhere we had to break the job into two runs without perfecting in order to achieve the fit. There are not many jobs like that, but for us it was a significant difference.”

Komori fell by the wayside because it could not offer the high press speed the company was looking for, although Creechan tips his hat to Steve Turner. “He was great, very knowledgeable. Komori, we felt, just didn’t have the equipment that could take us forward. We did not want a like for like replacement. We wanted to take a step forward, a step change.”

That proved to be LED UV which K&B could offer while Heidelberg was at that point comfortable with its LE-UV solution for the B1 format. The price of the ink was a hurdle, but less is used, Creechan points out. “Then you look into the potential benefits: the time no longer lost in backing up, especially on uncoated and other difficult substrates. At that point it became a bit of a no brainer for me.”

It did not mean his colleagues were as impressed not that they were willing to take the risk, especially the chairman whose money was in the frame. “I was concerned they would have been too scared to make the change,” he continues. “When they all agreed to go with it, I felt the weight lifting from my shoulders.”

The six-colour B1 with LED UV is the first press to this specification sold by K&B in the UK. It is supported by a ten-colour perfecting Rapida 106running conventional inks. The LED press has a coating unit which allows the company to experiment with value added effects.

“We wanted to print with drip off varnishes for example,” he says. These will give the impact of a screen applied varnish that would have meant a trip to the trade finisher.

On a job that needs an overall UV applied gloss varnish, promotional post cards for photographers for example, the cold cure that the LED imparts means that the sheet stays flat rather the distorting under a hot UV lamp.

The installation was a triumph of logistics as the press room went from two press operation to three machines and back to two. A base that had supported a six-colour press needed to be extended for the ten-colour machine. Paper and pallets of work in progress were scattered to the winds, Then the actual installation of the LED press because “a bit of a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. Now sixteen months after we installed it, I don’t know what we would do without it. It has lived up to expectations and then some. There is no way we could go back to conventional printing.”

The company can get through 24 different jobs in 24 hours using 15 or more substrates for that. With the switching between materials, the benefits of autonomous working and batch scheduling to group work on the same materials are limited.

K&B’s SIS infeed has coped with everything coming from the feeder and remains a wonder to Johnson. “The SIS is so accurate, it is so much better than a mechanical side lay,” Johnson says.

The rise in popularity of uncoated is meat and drink and sails through the press room and bindery. The LED opens up opportunities that the company intends to take for printing on plastic and other hitherto impractical materials. The scope of being a commercial printer demands the ability to print on the widest selection of papers.

“The first time we tried to print on plastic, it just worked,” says Johnson. “The settings on the dampening are more critical, but we have not had a single curing issue in the year or so we have been running it.”

“We can do things that we couldn’t previously do,” says Creechan. “Just about anything that can be printed we can print now. We are becoming the go-to guys for anything that’s difficult to print.”

Silk coated papers on the other hand have created some issues. When printing conventionally with a seal to enable rapid processing, there is no problem.

Printing on the LED UV press there have been some marking issues, due it seems to the uneven surface of the paper, having investigated with inks and paper suppliers. Now if Johnson suspects there will be a problem, the sheet gets a lick of coating, it will very occasionally get a lick of seal. “And the bindery have learned they have to work slightly differently on silk coated papers. Uncoated is much easier for them.”

“Moving to LED UV was the easy part. Operators had to understand the different aspects and different materials,” he says. “They found the change from Heidelberg to K&B a lot more difficult. There are different buttons to press. The guys that found it easiest were those that have only been with us for three years. They didn’t have the 15 years of Heidelberg that others had.”

The performance of the ten-colour press has been equally impressive. Where the company could expect 100,000 sheets on the floor during a shift, it now achieves 130,000 in the 12 hours.

“We keep on top of maintenance and look after the presses to the mark. We ensure there are no excuses,” says Johnson. This is backed up by a negotiated six-year warranty period. “This has cost implications, but it means there are no surprises for us.” So far, less than 18 months in, there have been none, nor a drop off in performance.

There has been a more quotidian change that Johnson has enjoyed. “On the six-colour plus coater previously, we would have to stop every 12 hours to clean down the press, otherwise it would cause us real problems. Now there is no spray powder and no need for this type of cleaning. That’s a huge advantage to us.”

There was investment in a new platesetter with a throughput of 67 plates and hour. The older Screen machine has been retained and gives the business a 100 plates an hour peak throughput if needed. There was a switch to a more resilient Fujifilm plate because of the UV. The bindery is fully equipped with stitching line and Muller Martini Alegro perfect binder, installed only a couple of years ago. The latest of its three MBO folders, the fastest available at the time, is two-and-a-half years old. The stitcher would be the next for replacement but no orders have been placed. An Autobond laminator is kept busy, improving its output because thanks to the lack of spray powder, the printed sheet from the UV press is much smoother.

It has bought a new Polar 78 guillotine, but this is the smallest device that is sold by Heidelberg UK and is destined for the digital print room where two HP Indigos provide the print capacity and is a self contained facility. A Duplo DBM600 was the most recent installation here, sold with a consignment of spares and a series of SLAs to guarantee its uptime. Creechan says the deal was more akin to how HP sells its presses than a normal ‘hand over the money, here’s the equipment’ approach that is more traditional in print.

The overall impact has been to give the company more control over the business. It knows it can print and back up sheets on the six-colour press without waiting an indeterminate time for them to dry. It knows that the press will run at 18,000sph on virtually any substrate, that the perfecting press will be running at 16,000sph, that plate changing on the six-colour will take four minutes.

“The presses are no longer the bottleneck,” Johnson explains. “Previously on some types of paper, from Fedrigoni say, that some customers like to use, we would take a week to get a job through the press and into finishing. Now it’s printed and ready in an hour.”

At times the six-colour press will take on a longer job that might have been better on the ten-colour to provide respite from the flow of short run jobs and makereadies. There are no issues matching across the different machines, slight adjustments to density are all that is required he adds.

This gives the finishing area more time to schedule effectively or to cope with urgently needed jobs rather than always being under pressure to get the job out. And this despite the greater capacity of the presses to push jobs through. That also gives the press room greater flexibility to take on urgently required jobs because there is confidence that these will go through quickly. “We could get a job in the morning that is wanted for the same afternoon. We don’t do that, but in theory there is the slack to do so. We will print jobs overnight,” says Creechan.

The average run on the ten-colour machine is 8,000-9,000 sheets, on the six-colour it is 2,500-3,000 sheets, almost in digital print territory. Indeed with the B1 sheet compared to the SRA3 on the Indigos, some jobs will be quicker printed litho than digital, Creechan says.

There are no intentions to increase the format of digital print “because of the speed and because of the costs involved. We are almost a B2 printer but running B1 presses,” he says. The willingness to take on this type of work results in a low average order value. “Only 3% of jobs are worth more than £3,000.”

While the cost of the LED UV ink was a concern that was mitigated by the absence of powder, aqueous coatings and lower energy. At the outset the team was told that ink consumption would be lower, by as much as 15%. This has proved to be unduly pessimistic. “We are using almost 30% less ink,” Creechan says.

It is still a honeymoon period for the company with the technology and the expectations remain high. Creechan retains his commitment to being a commercial printer. “We have been told many times ‘you must diversify, you must do this or do that’, but I’m not sure we need to do that. We are picking off the companies that do not invest and just stay still.”

There will be opportunities to acquire some of the weaker businesses. Some may be taken, Creechan says, but it is not the main thrust of the strategy.

“Within five years things will have changed in the market and will have changed here. We used to be a production driven business, now we are becoming a sales driven business.” That is going to require an marketing effort to promote not just print but J Thomson Colour’s ability to promote itself, which he adds is “the tricky bit”.

If that is a common problem to many print businesses, J Thomson Colour also has the universal print problem of an ageing team. Its production managers are in their sixth decade Creechan says. But this he has been doing something about.

With some external help, the printer has devised a bespoke management training programme and the first three hands going through have completed the first part of the course. Traditionally people working up from the shopfloor understand the intricacies of their department and the process, but not the wider business issues.

“Steve, for example, would understand nothing about the rest of the business. Now over three years each has gone round to different parts of the business, shadowing the sales reps and working in each area and getting involved in cap ex projects.

“At the same time he has received personal coaching with an outside expert which has been simply transformational. It has covered everything, life goals and so on, not just work. It turned out he used to be in a band in his teenage years, now has returned to it. And he was always quite shy, now can make a presentation.

“We are trying to give people within the business the confidence so that when something changes they will be better prepared to take it on. The technical and business training is great, but the candidates are getting more from the personal development,” continues Creechan. “We are going to be in position for the next generation. I think we are in good shape.”

This article first featured in Print Business on the 15th of March, 2018. Please find the original article by following this link.

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